One Photographer, Two Backpacks, and an Epic Three-Year Journey

In March 2010, photographer Uruma Takezawa left Japan with two backpacks—one on his front and one on his back. More than a thousand days later he returned.

Carrying only his clothes, cameras, a computer, a tent, and a sleeping bag, Takezawa set out to create a body of work that celebrates the connection between people and their land, with a focus on communities that are cut off from the modern world. He thought he would be gone for a year.

“When I left Japan I thought one year would be enough to look at every continent, but it was not enough at all,” he said in a recent phone interview.

“And when I finished one year, I had only finished South America, and I realized that the world was much bigger than I anticipated. You know, we get so much information from the Internet and TV and we think we know about the world, but the real world was much bigger than I ever imagined.”

Takezawa’s journey took him to Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East, and North and South America, and his resulting body of work is simply called “Land.” The images celebrate the diversity of the world’s people—many of whom welcomed Takezawa into their communities, despite never having seen a camera, or even a world map, before.

On the way, Takezawa traveled alone on foot, by bus, train, car, horseback, and even kayak to reach his destinations. And despite carrying 45-50 pounds of gear, the one thing he rarely did was take a taxi.

“I didn’t have enough money for my journey, which I thought would be for one year but then it became three,” he said. “So I couldn’t use taxis and I just walked for hours and hours to save money.”

Prior to his journey, Takezawa worked as a professional marine photographer and had connections with many magazines and newspapers. So when he ran out of money, he contacted editors and picked up occasional freelance assignments around the world just so he could keep traveling.

And while Takezawa acknowledges that for most people three years of travel sounds like a dream, in reality, he said he was terribly lonesome.

“I felt lonely all the time. The first two months I was OK, but after that I was always lonely. Not many people spoke Japanese on the journey, my English is not so good, and I don’t speak any Spanish. So when I experienced something during my travels, I didn’t have anyone to share the experience with. Every day I wanted to go back to Japan, but also I wanted to take photos—so there was a constant battle between loneliness and the desire to keep on the journey.”

Ironically, Takezawa said that returning to Japan turned out to be the hardest part of his trip. After being on the road for three years, mainly in remote and rural places, he says it was a huge culture shock to return to the fast pace of his home country.

“I was born in Japan, I am Japanese, Japan is my country, but at that time I felt so weird. Everything was so bright. Everything was so quick. Everything was so expensive. The people didn’t welcome me.

“Now that I’ve been back a few years it seems normal, but at the time I wanted to go back to somewhere, anywhere, and live again with nomadic people.”

*****

Uruma Takezawa is the third Grand Prize Winner of the Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize and his images were published in the February 2015 Japanese edition of National Geographic. His debut solo show featuring photos from “Land” are currently on exhibit at the Foto-Care Gallery in New York through May 5th.

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