Fumi Nagasaka’s Portrait of Unexpected Beauty in America’s Rural South

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Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama by Fumi Nagasaka
Addie Crying, 2019© Fumi Nagasaka

After a trip to America’s rural south in the thick of the 2016 elections, Fumi Nagasaka turned to “photography as a tool to show this appreciation for life”

There is a startling honesty to Fumi Nagasaka’s work that can take you aback. Bare feet emerge from underneath a blanket, pale with illness. Two teenage girls sit on a mattress, faces deadpan as they hold a rabbit underneath a hairdryer. A churchgoer with a black eye sits in his Sunday best: eyes rapt in exaltation, or perhaps contrition. The New York-based photographer’s new book Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama, is filled with images that capture a sense we are intruding on a private moment.

It comes as a surprise to know that when Nagasaka began this project in 2017, she was a disillusioned editorial photographer, worn down after years in New York’s fashion scene. “Being in the industry is really hard. It’s just, like, so stressful,” Nagasaka admits over a video call interview from her home in Brooklyn. “I kind of lost the reason why I started.”

Then an unexpected trip to America’s rural south in the heat of the 2016 elections reignited her love for photography. Following an invitation to visit her friend Tanya Rouse’s hometown, Nagasaka travelled to Walker County, Alabama, where she was struck by a different kind of beauty – worlds away from her home in New York, and reminiscent in some ways of the small Japanese town she grew up in. “When I got there, I was in shock. [The] lifestyle was so different. It’s a rural small town. And I started to learn a lot.” Despite their different cultural backgrounds, Walker County’s locals welcomed her with warmth and kindness, opening their lives and homes. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is why I started photography – because I love connecting with people.’ I love to use photography as a tool to show this appreciation for life.”

Nagasaka is full of stories about the friendships she developed with numerous locals over the six-year duration of this project. “My book is about the celebration of a small community, a love letter to (them) from me,” she says. She recalls a particular family who crop up frequently throughout her photos. In one, a boy practises the trumpet in his backyard, the setting sun casting his shadow against flaking paint. “There’s five siblings, and they were kind of going through very hard financial times. But they were always so happy to have each other. Every day in the front yard, they’re playing from dusk till dawn. And I was so inspired by the love between the siblings and family.” While Nagasaka admits that there is a sad truth to the hardships faced by Walker County locals, she also says, “I was inspired by how they’re so positive. They’re just living (these lives) full of love and happiness.”

Dora is in many ways a reflection of Nagasaka’s eye for unexpected beauty. She was struck, for instance, by the front porch that belonged to her friend’s aunt, who couldn’t understand why. “I didn’t see it as a broken thing. I saw it as … it was an amazing, beautiful moment with the light coming through the trees, hitting the tricycle. And then [there] was a broken couch. But it had a pattern, the fabric was an old flower pattern or something and it kind of matched with the background of the tree.” Nagasaka was charmed by Walker County, and all its idiosyncrasies.  

Her photos are in themselves an appreciation for small delights and raw realities. Simulating how she would often talk to her subjects, Nagasaka says, “I want to photograph how you are, and where you live. And that’s like, you know, a beautiful moment. So I have to explain [this] to them, to catch a moment of themselves being themselves.” Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama is an intimate and moving ode to one county’s unique charms, but primarily it’s a celebration of connection, and the joy that can be unearthed when one stays alive to it.

Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama by Fumi Nagasaka is published by Gost, and is out now.