Kosuke Okahara: Documenting Daily Life in Countries that Don’t Exist

Kosuke Okahara’s passion is capturing the day-to-day experiences of everyday life in isolated places, and he does so with tenderness and without judgment using a pair of Leica M7 cameras.

Born in 1980, Okahara grew up in Tokyo and started his career as a photographer after college, where he studied education. Now living in France, he is focused on telling the stories of isolated groups of people in challenging locations based on the theme of “Ibasyo” which, in Japanese, refers to the physical and emotional space in which one can exist. Okahara’s work has been honored with numerous awards and grants including a W. Eugene Smith Fellowship, participation in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass, Sony World Photography Award, the Prix Kodak in France, and was included in PDN’s 2009 list of 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch. Here is the heartfelt story of his documentation of life in Lenina, a village in Transnistria, an unrecognized country on the border of the Ukraine near Moldova. The reportage appears in LFI issue 1/2014.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot your reportage on Transnistria for LFI?

A: I used two Leica M7 cameras and two Leica M lenses, a 35 mm f/2 Summicron and a 24 mm f/2.8 Elmarit.

Q: What made this equipment especially suitable for this project? What characteristics of the Leica do you enjoy or find particularly useful?

A: I have always liked the quality of Leica lenses, which capture very sharp images that have a creamy, natural looking quality I call “wet”. As for the M body, I love the quietness of the shutter, and also the size of the camera which is quite small, handy, and unintimidating.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your Transnistria reportage for LFI?

A: It’s about the daily life of Lenina, so called in honor of Vladimir Lenin. It’s a small isolated village in Transnistria located along the border with Ukraine. I have been interested in Transnistria ever since the first time I visited Moldova in 2009. More recently, in 2011, I was looking at the map with my Moldovan friend and we discovered that the village derives its name from Lenin. I immediately felt impelled to go there. In the beginning I wasn’t looking for anything particular; I just wanted see what life there was like — how it felt to live in Transnitria, a country that doesn’t officially exist and how these people perceived their identity.

Then I actually went to this village and asked people if I could stay and take photographs. They were very open and welcomed me though some of them were little skeptical at first. However, once I remained there and began to photograph these people, I began to discover the small histories of each of the villagers, as well as the real life consequences of the war with Moldova, and the economic situation of Transnistria where a lot of young people leave to work in Russia or Ukraine (because all of them hold either Moldovan, Russian or Ukrainian passports) and their children who are left in the village to live with their grandparents and do not see their parents for long periods, etc. It was a fascinating trip, especially discovering the place visually as well as the stories behind its present situation.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I think the particularity of my photography revolves around two things — tenderness and access.  Most of the time, I live with the people while I photograph them. I try to recognize and to accept them as they are. I believe access is one of the most important aspects of photography other than the quality of the images themselves. And this gives a certain trait to my pictures and I believe the best word to describe it is tenderness.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: My approach is quite simple, as I indicated, I try to be there in a natural way so that both I and the people I photograph feel comfortable. For me photography is the way to recognize the existence of the people who are the subjects of my photographs and to make them remain relevant in history rather than just showing them at a particular moment.

Q: All your images for this project were shot in black-and-white. The medium certainly seems suited to documenting this place, but what is it that you find so compelling about black-and-white film images, and do you ever shoot digitally or in color?

A: I have shot digitally and color too. I like color, and the fact that it has very strong power that can depict and delineate specific elements within the frame. However, when I shoot black-and-white I simply focus on capturing existential reality without considering color because I cannot use the power of the color. I don’t really use a different approach when shooting color and black-and-white, but when I shoot black-and-white, I know I can’t count on the power of the color so I use the light and contrast, etc. In all cases the primary goal for me is to capture existence, which is actually something beyond the visible.

Q: On the whole these images convey the feeling of “witnessing without judgment,” a goal that many photojournalists strive to attain. How does that implicit detachment fit in with your emotional concept of “tenderness,” which is also a characteristic of your images? Is there a tension between these two elements or are they, so to speak, the opposite sides of the same coin?

A: For me those two elements are inextricably linked. Probably witnessing without judgment is not quite the right phrase; it’s more like I am just there and I capture their existence. To do so authentically, I need to be there in a natural way, and that’s what gives tenderness to my images. Does this make sense?

Q: The images in this portfolio taken together do indeed tell a story, revealing the mode of existence of a proud and serene people who are determined to maintain their way of life, and they also embody that Japanese concept of “Ibasyo,” by conveying the physical and emotional space in which they exist. How do you think you are able to achieve this? Is it necessary to establish a heartfelt connection with your subjects, and how do you arrive at that place as an outsider who is essentially just visiting?

A: I think it really depends on the people and myself. With some people it’s possible, but with others not so much. This time, I think I was lucky to be accepted. This is because of my friend who helped me to explain what I talked to them about, and what I wanted to do. Also, the people in the village were very open to me. One important thing I always try to be is honest. I basically explain my intentions honestly. Sometimes people don’t like it, others sometimes do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but honesty is paramount to whatever the outcome.

Q: Many of your images are very high contrast and some, like the above image, are quite grainy. The visible grain certainly contributes to the gritty aesthetic quality of that particular portrait of a young person. Was this effect deliberate and what film and developer did you use to achieve it?

A: I don’t try to make my images too grainy. I shoot my film at ISO 800 most of time to get a bit higher shutter speed with Kodak Tri-X. Since I push my film one stop, the images will be a bit grainier than if I had shot them at ISO 320. That’s the only reason. The developer is Xtol. What I try to do most of time is to get detail in the shadows too. This isn’t always visible in the scanned images, and in the particular image you refer to the result is actually quite contrasty and dark. In other words, I don’t really print at high contrast, but this image looks like a high-contrast image because I printed it a certain way.

Q. It is evident that life in Lenina is challenging both in terms of the economy, the politics, and the climate, yet the people seem to express an inner contentment and satisfaction despite the fact that nobody is smiling broadly or expressing much outward emotion. Do you agree, and what do you think accounts for their matter-of-fact expressions?

A: I feel people in Lenina are not too frustrated by their circumstances. A lot of elderly people I met are simply getting on with their lives. Of course the fact is that many young people leave the region to work, leaving their kids behind, which wouldn’t happen if there were enough jobs. But most of the people I talked to are not complaining. Of course like all people they express some desire to have certain things to make their lives more convenient.

Q: This picture of the person standing next to a scale holding an open book in what looks like a grocery store is fascinating. How do you feel about this picture and what’s actually going on here?

A: This is a grocery store in the village. This is the biggest one in the village next to the school and village office. For me this tells a lot of their life — about what they eat, what they use and how they live. People go shopping in the cities too, but this store is something quite basic that you find in the village. It’s also where people can eat and drink (not like in a restaurant but they can simply eat and drink what they buy at the grocery store).

Q: The picture of a little boy standing against a spare snowy landscape holding a rabbit by the ears is both charming and troubling. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release and what do you think this image communicates to the viewer?

A: It was his grandfather who captured the rabbit and butchered the body for food. After they killed the rabbit, the child held its head as shown. It wasn’t exactly a sweet moment, but when I saw the grandfather was killing the rabbit I felt it is quite a natural thing and it is a good education for kids too. Since we don’t see how animals end up in the supermarket and we tend to forget what it was before it was killed. For this child, it’s a normal thing that he sees as an everyday event. It also reveals how people actually live in the villages. Because there is no cruel intention, I didn’t see this moment as cruel, just as a part of everyday life.

Q: The beautifully composed shot of a young mother braiding her blond daughter’s hair captures something universal and human, and the window light delineates the subjects superbly. What motivated you to take this picture and can you tell us some of the tech details such as the lens and aperture you used?

A: I was just sitting on the chair when I visited their house. They both looked very beautiful. How they communicated was simply very lovely and sweet. As you said, probably that “universal and human” feeling is what made me click the shutter. The lens was 35 mm Summicron and the aperture was around f/3.5.

Q: Since you clearly have a passion for black-and-white, have you ever considered using or acquiring a Leica Monochrom or are you totally committed to film? If the latter, what is your assessment of the advantages of film over digital capture?

A: I have never thought of it, but I would like to try the Monochrom. That said, I still enjoy shooting on film. This is because the film is sometimes uncertain. I don’t know how it looks until I develop it. Also I have to closely examine the same images so many times when I print, so it takes time and energy to achieve what I want. I enjoy the whole process. I don’t need promised perfection in my photography. For me, the most important thing is to keep trying to reach perfection even if it’s something difficult to achieve. Then I believe sometimes magic happens.

Thank you for your time, Kosuke!

- Leica Internet Team

Please find Kosuke’s full reportage in LFI 1/2014. Also available for the iPad. Connect with Kosuke on his website, Twitter, and Facebook.