A photographic ode to a small Alabaman town

A photographic ode to a small Alabaman town
In her new monograph, photographer Fumi Nagasaka captures her unlikely friendships with the residents of Dora, Yerkwood County, which has a population of just over 2,000.

Just over half a decade ago in 2017, Fumi Nagasaka was in her New York apartment block chatting to her neighbour, when they invited the Japanese photographer to visit their hometown in Alabama. It came at a strange, uncertain time in the US – Donald Trump had just been elected as the country’s President and the United States had never seemed more disunited in recent memory. Having grown up in Japan, Nagasaka realised that her understanding of the country she now called home was limited to its coastal powerhouses, and she wanted to learn more about life in between.

“I had lived in New York for a long time – I’d been to LA or San Francisco, but those are big cities [and] I’d never been to rural America,” she explains. “Then things kind of changed for me just thinking about the world – I was doing fashion [photography] but I was like: ‘Wait, there’s so many other things to see.’”

Up to that point she had built herself a successful career making pictures for glossy magazines including Dazed & Confused and high-end fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, but she decided to bring her camera along as the pair travelled the near 1,000 miles to Dora – a small city with a population of 2,297 according to the 2020 census. With the Big Apple’s skyscrapers replaced by luscious forestry and detached wooden homes, the visit was eye-opening. “It was very different,” she says. “I started to understand: ‘Okay, this is actually America.’”

Pink House, 2018

While capturing this new side of the USA, she initially found scepticism and resistance to an East Asian woman walking around asking for permission to take photos. “A lot of people never really had the opportunity to see photography or art or fashion, so a lot of people were scared of me taking photos, [particularly] of their kids,” she says. “They didn’t know who I am or what I do – one grandparent thought I was selling pictures to a porn site.”

Then a stroke of luck came when local newspaper Daily Mountain Eagle interviewed her for a feature, and given the chance to explain her work the community started to open up to this outsider taking pictures. Nagasaka quickly developed an affinity with the small town, returning regularly for the next four years and growing lasting friendships with several in the community – particularly members of its younger generation. “I started to go back every year and photograph the same people,” she explains. “Especially young people – the teenagers grew up very fast, so every year when I visited them they were different.”

Kaleb and Kavin, 2018
Teen Spirit, 2018

Now, those photographs are published in her new monograph Dora, Yerkwood County, Alabama. From the local school Homecoming event to hanging out in the homes of her friends – filled with classic Southern regalia and Christian symbols – the pictures are an insight into rural, small town American life. With colour shots mixed with nostalgic black-and-white images, they are also a love letter to the friends that Nagasaka made over her various trips – especially among the town’s youth. Bursting with warmth and empathy, Nagasaka’s shots focus on the shared humanity between her and her sitters, rather than their cultural differences.

The book doesn’t shy away from documenting the town’s often tough econimic conditions. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the highest poverty rates in the country are in the rural South – nearly 20 per cent are considered below the poverty line – and it means opportunities are often limited for young people. The book is closed out by an essay from Diaminh – who has moved to New York to study at Columbia University – where she explains that despite growing up in a single-parent, low-income home, she’s proud to be “Alabama bred, cornbread fed”.

Addie and McKenzie Drying Addie’s Rabbit, G Top, 2020

“When she moved here [to New York] I met her and she told me she’s the first person who went to college or reached her stage in education, and she had so much pressure from the community,” Nagasaka recalls. “She talked about how she was poor growing up and what she has had to overcome to get this far, and now she wants to be a politician in D.C – I want to be her supporter.

“Every time I come back from Alabama it was with so much excitement and happiness – like I became a new person,” she continues. “I built a very close relationship with [Dora residents], and visiting makes me very happy – I feel like I’m part of the community.”

Deionte, 2020

Dora, Yerkwood County, Alabama by Fumi Nagasaka is published by GOST

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