Who are the Ama? They are a little bit like Japanese Amazons—all-female tribes of abalone divers who live together in a self-sufficient community, an arrangement that has been a tradition on the Shima Peninsula for over two thousand years. Why women only? A quote following the title page gives the reader a hint, courtesy of a traditional Ise-Shima saying: “A woman who cannot feed a man is worthless.” And, according to Japanese lore, women's bodies are more resistant to cold water, an advantage for this particular type of diving, in which no scuba gear or external breathing apparatus are used.
Photographer Nina Poppe started this project inspired by the work of Fosco Maraini, an Italian ethnologist, anthropologist, writer, and photographer who extensively documented Tibet and Japan, including the Ama community, over the course of four decades, beginning in the 1930s. Poppe chose to document the everyday life of the Ama, focusing on the divers themselves—most of whom are over sixty. Their habits are simple: they wear a white scarf on their heads to scare sharks and to make it easier to be spotted from a boat; they give a piercing whistle before they dive into the water to maximize their lung capacity. They live close to their vegetable gardens and keep huts on the beach, where they dry their equipment. However, like many traditional lifestyles, theirs is threatened by societal changes. Massive 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. The kids are left with their grandmothers.
Poppe never shows us what's happening underwater, instead choosing to reference Maraini's 1962 book "The Island of the Fisher Women" directly. She reproduces several facsimile pages from the book, printing them on a thin, pale blue paper. Nor does she depict any men, although plenty of children cavort throughout the pages, their presence offering a somewhat softening effect on the depiction of this tough brood of women. In an otherwise all-female community, the only males are children.
Page by page, the life these women lead outside of their dives becomes increasingly important to the project, which shifts into nostalgia and poetry. This is a book of contrasts — tradition and pop; age and youth; back-breaking physical labor and carefree play. Opposites attract.
– Laurence Vecten