“The Ama is a project that arose after Stefan was introduced to the tradition by his friend Wataru Suzuki. “A few weeks later, I was on a local train from Nagoya to Toba on my way to stay with the Nakagawa family, who have been working as Ama for centuries,” Stefan recalls. “Currently there are three generations, the grandmother still goes into the sea regularly.” He notes the feeling of learning about the Ama as being similar to stumbling across a “little universe”, and because there are only around 2,000 divers left in Japan, Stefan made it his mission to document its history. “It’s a fading tradition, but with the work we do, we have the opportunity to make it live on a bit longer, even if it’s just in a book.”
Throughout his series, you’re greeted with a wonderful display of life, heritage and happiness. His subjects are glancing into his lens with smiles so tender that it’s hard to miss the pure joy beaming from their expressions. Stefan points out one image in particular, of Shizuka Nakagawa, who he’d photographed after they’d returned from the ocean. “We were chatting about her relationship to the tradition that has been passed down to her from generations before, and how she admires her grandmother for the things she taught her.” Stefan captured this moment with a black and white image, cropped so the viewer focuses on the subject’s face behind her diving mask. Her stare and smile are both stern and telling.
Another picture, and Stefan’s favourite of them all, is of two women candidly posing together against a sky-blue backdrop, wearing full diving gear. Stefan shot the picture from below, so we see their silhouettes, smiling faces and the sky framing the image, an artful composition that gives them a heroic presence as they glance down at the camera. “It captures everything I want to tell in a photograph,” he says. “It is a documentary portrait, but the enchanting smiles and the simplicity of the colours drag you into a parallel universe.”
This “little universe” of Stefan’s is a place of craft and tradition. By compiling a mix of landscapes, portraiture and stills, the photographer aims to recreate the moments he had whilst visiting the Ama. “I want to give the observer the chance to step into the mystical world of ancient traditions that are on the brink of being forgotten,” he says. “The joy these women brought towards me, that’s what I want people to feel. As Alex Prager said about the cover photograph: ‘I love the raw emotion that emits from this image and the pure joy I feel looking at it.’”
Life Framer 2020 by Alex Prager
Palm Photo Prize 2021 Shortlist
British Journal of Photography
This Is Paper Magazine
Common Language Magazine
C 41 Magazine
Special Thanks to
“I love the raw emotion that emits from this image and the pure joy I feel looking it. The humanity seeps through in every detail and choice, compositionally and through the use of color (and lack there of). I was drawn to the expansiveness of the image as well as its simplicity.” – Alex Prager
The Women of the Sea project is ongoing and set to be published in book-form in 2022.