Stefan Dotter documents the Ama, the “sea women” of Japan

After stumbling across this “little universe”, the photographer made it his mission to help preserve the long-standing traditions of this group of pearl divers.

28 April 2021

In previous times, Stefan Dotter would spend at least six months a year travelling the world. That was, of course, until the pandemic swept the globe and his plans, like many, were “turned upside down”. With his usual stream of inspiration halted temporarily, the photographer and founder of Whitelies magazine, spent his time instead consuming information through the digital sphere. “It’s the only way to travel for me these days,” he says.

Stefan’s mornings generally start with Qi Gong exercises, Tai Chi and a tea ceremony. “By this time my phone is still off and I sit down to write,” he says. “Whatever comes to my mind really. Sometimes my writing features characteristics of a diary, lyrics, poems, ideas, anything. After I run out of things to say to myself, I connect to the outer world with administrative work and meetings.”

He discovered the medium of photography around six years ago and ever since, hasn’t been able to put his camera down. Originally from a small town called Bamberg in the northern part of Bavaria, Germany, he previously studied economics in Vienna before founding Whitelies Magazine, which is now in its ninth issue and “positioned as a cultural visual bridge between the Asia-Pacific and what we perceive as ‘The West’,” he says. “Through Whitelies, I began taking pictures and it naturally led me into this world.”

Ordinarily, Stefan would travel to Japan regularly, but he hasn’t been able to go since he shot his most recent story there: The Ama. “Ama” literally translates to “sea women” and are a famed group of (mostly) women, who dive for pearls. It’s a tradition that dates back thousands of years. While earlier divers in the 60s might have worn a simple loincloth, today the Ama sport garments more like a diving costume, but many still take to the seas without scuba gear or air tanks.


Stefan Dotter: The Ama (Copyright © Stefan Dotter, 2021)

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.’”

GalleryStefan Dotter: The Ama (Copyright © Stefan Dotter, 2021)

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Stefan Dotter: The Ama (Copyright © Stefan Dotter, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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