In Japan, they are known as Ama-San, a title that conveys a great deal of affection and admiration. And yet, hardly anyone is aware of what these courageous and independent women actually do.
So, who are the Ama? These legendary fisherwomen of the Japanese island of Ise-Shima dive for abalone, using no equipment, in water that is up to 30 meters deep. Abalone is a type of sea snail that is considered a delicacy and that commands high prices. For over two thousand years, this Amazon-like community has persisted, through technological, social, and environmental change.
Why are the Ama only women? A traditional Ise-Shima saying, quoted at the beginning of the book, gives one idea: “A woman who cannot feed a man is worthless.” Since time immemorial, the image of man as hunter has been the epitome of masculinity. But Japanese lore dictates that men become chilled faster when in water, so the hunt for abalone has traditionally been a woman's domain in Japan.
The uniqueness of this story drew German photographer Nina Poppe to this isolated place in Japan. After spending some time with the Ama, Poppe chose to document the everyday life of the divers. Poppe has the eye of an anthropologist. She shows how their way of dress is simple but effective: they wear white scarves to scare sharks and to make themselves visible from their boats. They give a piercing whistle before they dive into the water to maximize their lung capacity. They live by the beach, drying their equipment out in the sun while waiting for their next chance to dive.
Poppe never shows us what's happening underwater though. The only images we see are reproduced from an older photographer's book on the subject, titled "The Island of the Fisher Women". Poppe also chooses to not depict any men. We do see children though, a welcome presence that softens the toughness of the hunter women.
Yet even the ageless Ama are not wholly immune to change. Over-fishing, pollution, and cheap imports have reduced the viability of their profession, leading the younger generation to move away in search of easier jobs and better money.
This is a community that is both timeless and irrevocably changing. Poppe captures this transitory moment effortlessly, showing us a window into the past which may soon be shut forever.
AMA by Nina Poppe
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag
Hardcover: 144 pages