Fumi Nagasaka’s seven year photographic voyage to Alabama has beguiling results
The project, titled Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama, delves into the inner works of a small town in southern America, coasting from church services to cheerleading practices.
- Olivia Hingley
- 8 January 2024
Fumi Nagasaka’s seven year photographic odyssey began with a chance encounter. In 2016 she bumped into her then neighbour Tanya, who lived on her same residential block in New York, and ended up casting her daughters Sophie and Annabelle in her first photobook, Untitled Youth. Before long they became close friends. Upon learning that Fumi had never travelled to any of the small states in the US, Tanya suggested that the pair travel together to the small town of Dora in Alabama where she grew up. What would follow this trip would become one of the most defining and long-running projects of Fumi’s career so far.
Initially, Fumi and Tanya travelled to Dora so the photographer could complete a fashion editorial story for the Finnish fashion magazine Ssaw, a series we covered back in 2018. Driving around sourcing interesting locations to shoot and photographing the mother and daughters, Fumi found herself increasingly drawn to her surroundings. “When experiencing the south for the first time through the trip, I was very inspired and thought this could be something I want to explore as a photographer,” says the photographer.
Tanya introduced Fumi to her relatives, which helped her forge an even deeper creative relationship with Dora. “I was lucky that I met and photographed my friend’s relatives first because it’s very important to have personal access to have an opportunity to get close and know the people to photograph” Fumi says. “This was especially important in the small rural town where a lot of people have never met Asian people before so it would be very hard to even start the project without anyone who is in the community.”
Over the next seven years, Fumi began travelling to and from Dora, getting to know locals and immersing herself in local happenings. Many images from the series show school life, accurately capturing the various groups, cliques and emotions. Cheerleaders are shown mid-routine, uniformed band members practising on the stadium steps, a prom in full swing, many in the midst of the dancefloor, a sole figure at a table viewing the revelries from afar. Some delve into community spaces, a pastor in a local church, rows of portioned sponge cake with pink icing wrapped in cling film, and some travel even further, into the homes of her subjects.
One image that stands out to Fumi is that of Addie and Mackenzie, both recurring figures throughout the book. The pair are shown drying Mackenzie’s rabbit after he urinated on her bed, both looking slightly bemused. A moment Fumi was compelled to capture for how “funny and unique” it was, but also because of elements of the scene’s background. In the corner of the frame you can see a collection of K-Pop posters, both girls – like many teens – being big fans. For Fumi this gives the image, which has a timeless quality, a simple way of signalling the context of a more globalised present day.
The series wasn’t without its moments of uncertainty, or miscommunication. One day Fumi encountered a shed in someone’s front yard and found something compelling about the way the light was coming through the trees, and how the flower pattern of the old chair that almost made it indecipherable from the leafy background. But upon taking the photo, a local asked Fumi why she was focussing on things that were falling apart, rather than something new – they assumed she was trying to glorify the poverty and deprivation of the area. “I didn’t expect these questions because that was not the way I saw things,” Fumi says. “I love things that have charm and personality.”
Now, Fumi looks back at the project with great fondness. Not only did she create her longest-running work to date, but she forged close, long lasting relationships with the people she photographed. She’s grateful to the Gost books team for listening to her vision and helping her to piece together such a wide array of images. But mainly, Fumi is thankful for Tanya – for her collaboration and her generosity, for graciously introducing Fumi to her family, and the place she calls home.
Fumi Nagasaka: The Band (Copyright © Fumi Nagasaka, 2017)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.