Interview with Yasuhiro Kunimori

By Nanne op ‘t Ende
October 8, 2006

Yasuhiro Kunimori (1974) is a Japanese photographer whose travels to less accessible places took him to the Nuba Mountains in 2005. He made a wonderful series of photos - some of which will be printed in the book 'Proud to be Nuba'. (see some of Kunimori's photos). In an email interview he talks about his work and about his trip to the Nuba Mountains.

Photo by Yasuhiro Kunimori

How did you get into photography?

I was attracted to photography simply because photos can say more than words in some cases, and because photos can be an evidence of a matter, as a record. I didn’t study photography in any school or institution, but I learnt many things from a very famous Japanese photographer, Masanori Kobayashi, who used to be the only one contract cameraman for the UN. I traveled several Asian countries with him and for a long time, he has personally taught me a lot.

Before meeting him, I worked for a Japanese newspaper for several years, and took photos and wrote articles. In the past years I went to Iraq, Somalia and so on where not so many people go, and published a lot of pictures on various major magazines, like DAYS JAPAN, which was selected as a remarkable magazine in 2004 by World Press Photo, and many newspapers in Japan. Also, some of my photos can be seen on the website of a UK-based photo agency: Exile Images.

You went to the Nuba Mountains as a photographer… were you familiar with the work of George Rodger or Leni Riefenstahl? And do you know the Nuba photos of Kazuyoshi Nomachi?

Of course I know Nomachi’s photos! They are so impressive to me: they are one of the reasons to visit the Nuba area. And the works of Rodger and Riefenstahl also drove me to go there. The thing is, in many cases, when I plan where to visit, one impressive photo or one poor photo can force me to do so. In that sense, the works of all three photographers you mention are definitely one of the important reasons to see the Nuba people in their mountains.

I tend to perceive the work of Rodger and Riefenstahl in the light of a desire for purity; the great European tradition of romanticizing the primitive, the unspoiled, as more original, less worried, less corrupted, happier... Is there a different approach to the primitive in Japan?

The approach to the primitive is almost the same in Japan. In addition, we Japanese pay attention to their modesty to everything, especially to Mother Nature and all creatures.

Personally, the way of living of the primitive makes me feel that they have more wisdom and intelligence than others. For example, hundreds of years ago or more the Maya people in Central America could manage amazing astronomical observations or calendars, which are extremely difficult to be computed by even today’s computers. I believe Nuba people, who try to keep their traditional customs and to live modestly, are one of these primitive people. So I want to learn such people’s wisdom and intelligence, and to report about this to as many people as possible.

Another reason for me to visit is that there were few journalists visiting the Nuba Mountains in recent years. The Nuba people have been suffering from Africa’s longest conflict for more than 20years. When I take pictures, I am always thinking how I can help to stop or reduce killing in conflicts. So, as a photojournalist, I thought I had to report how the Nuba people have been living with the conflict, and how the conflict has destroyed the lives and the culture of the people which the photographers mentioned above took with cameras long before.

Whether it was George Rodger in 1949, or Riefenstahl in 1967, or Jack Picone in 1994: they all felt they were capturing pieces of a vanishing world. Did you feel anything like that?

Yes, I felt something similar to “recording a vanishing world”, but at the same time, I knew that Nuba people, especially the younger generation, wanted to be “modern” or “sophisticated”. Young people have a greater desire to go out of Nuba Mountains and to import European culture: from the music, the cars and the fashion, to the way of living itself. Nobody can stop it, but I found many older people still trying hard to keep their tradition and culture. So it is a complicated feeling for me, to see something like a clash of Europeanism and traditionalism. I had not expected to see such a big desire to be Europeanized.

You went in June 2005; the war was over. How did the people talk about their future? How did they talk about their past?

I was there between the middle of June and the beginning of August 2005. The people were not totally satisfied with the content of the peace agreement, but they said they could at least feel safe. So it was better than during the war, they said. And in some villages that used to be controlled by the Central Government, I saw that [people from the SPLA area] could at last visit there and achieve a reunion with family or friends. In some cases, some of the families once had to fight against each other during the conflict; that is, one brother was in the SPLA and another was in the army of the Central Government.

Lots of young people, including those who are in their 20s, finally can go to primary schools and study again. So, I can say, at least at the time when I was there, many people had quite bright hopes for the future, to rebuild their lives.

About the conflict, they said that they lost families, education, water, houses, cattle and sheep; they were driven out of their village… But it was impressive to see how many Nuba people were very proud to be Nuba. Even though they lost a lot of things because of the conflict, they kept their pride firmly. (In that sense, the enemy to them today might be “the pressure of modernizing”, as I mentioned before.)

And, Nuba people respect each other beyond the difference of their belief - animism, Christianity or Islam - they were living peacefully together, which could be the model of coexistence for the people in the rest of the world.

The end of July, the news of the death of John Garang shocked the Nuba people considerably and made them feel uneasy for the process of the peace agreement.

Did you move around a lot?

Except for the way from and to Kauda, I kept walking around; Mirawi, Achirun, Saraf, Dabker, Jigeba, Tocho, Limun, Jabel Ngandi, Kadro, Frandala, Lado, Tabanja, Kolcho, Toroji, and so on. I went to as many places as possible thanks to the help from lots of Nuba people. I could stay at NRRDO compounds if any, or at the chiefs’ house or at others’.

Of course, there was no electricity, gas or piped water. It was not easy. Often, I could not take a bath for three or four days. But I could stand it, because the things I saw were much more interesting than taking a bath. The people gave me meals, so I didn’t starve. They treated me very well. I really appreciate that.

If I must say, what I suffered most from was walking. Carrying heavy cameras and other things, it was very tiresome. Sometimes, I didn’t have enough energy left to take photos or to look for something photogenic because of too much walking. (The thing is, I still remember the scene of walking in the mountains at every single dinner. I never forget the scene of the mountain including my suffering from walking, not even one day.) But I believe, at the same time, walking made me find many things to take photos of as well.

I noticed you concentrated somewhat on suffering - I think you took photos in a clinic? And the culture of course…

I just want to take photos of ordinary people in each area. If people are crying, I want to take their crying. If they are laughing, I want to take their smile. If they have unique culture, I want to take it. If I must say something in one sentence, I want to take a picture of  “the voice of the people”, especially of people who have little power to say something - or little voice.
Personally, as a photojournalist, I want to keep picking up the voices of people who are voiceless, and to record things for future generations. And if possible, I want my photos to help to lessen conflict and poverty. I believe that Nuba people’s pride and respect can be a model to be followed by the rest of the world for peaceful coexistence.

I published photos on magazines and many newspapers. But before that, Japanese people did not know about Nuba very much, I am afraid. The Japanese Government is involved in the Nuba Mountains, but not so many Japanese knew about it. I hope that through my photos, more Japanese now know about the Nuba. And in the very near future (one week later or so), I will restart my Homepage. On it, I will show photos of Nuba people and try to appeal more.

Recently there has been a lot of tension and there are many differences between the different parts of the Nuba - did you notice any tension in 2005?

I didn’t notice such tension when I was there; I felt more hope than tension. If there was any tension, it was very subtle.

Would you like to go back again?

Yes. I want to go back. I want to see how the clash of Europeanism and traditionalism is going, besides seeing the people themselves. Next time, I will choose another season when I can see more of the traditional Nuba customs, this amazing culture…


Interviewed by email on October 7, 2006.


The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
You can contact me here.