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

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The Lower Omo River Valley, Ethiopia. "This is a boy I met at an Arbore tribe village. His eyes were suffused with life force. The people living on African soil were living each moment and radiant. Every time I met with eyes like these, I felt as if I were being questioned: 'Are you alive?'"

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.

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Uruma Takezawa in Iceland during his three-year photographic journey.

“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.”

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Lalung Gal Gompa, East Tibet. “A dense collection of monk quarters sprawled out over a hill. They looked like a living organism made of countless cells. It had snowed at dawn. When I woke up, the scenery was completely covered by white snow.”
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Niger. “Men of the Wodaabe tribe paint their face with pigments made from crushed rocks. Being highly aesthetic, men wear makeup to win the affection of women. Those people, living in harmony with Mother Earth in the remotest part of Africa, completely cut off from modern society, were more beautiful than anything I had ever seen in my life.”
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Maras, Peru. “At the back of the Andes, countless salt fields extended across the mountain slopes. The saline content from that time crystalized to produce salt. When I licked the salt from my fingertip, it tasted bitter—the taste of ancient times.”

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.”

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Uyuni, Bolivia. “I walked on a vast salt lake at an altitude of 4,000 meters. Pools of water began to form when it rained the night before. In the morning, the clouds were reflected faintly on the water, creating an infinitely extending heaven.”
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Gujarat, India. “A girl I met when I visited some villages of ethnic minorities scattered in the Kutch district. The environment around these villages that cherish their traditions is changing year by year; factories are built in rows, in search of cheap land and labor. The more I visited those villages, the less I could imagine what their lives will be like in the coming decades.”
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Pantanal, Brazil. “Cowboys drive a herd of hundreds of cattle over a vast meadow. I spent one week with them, and felt the presence of real nomads living in the present day.”

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.”

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The Lower Omo River Valley, Ethiopia. “This boy’s face was painted by a shaman at a coming-of-age ritual and he was just changing into a possessed state.”
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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “During the Rio Carnival period, the city turns to chaos and madness dwells in people. The steps of samba and the sweat running along the dancers’ bodies—the heat from the people melts the shapes of the surroundings and creeps deep into the soul of those watching them. This experience still lingers deep inside my memory. I feel the rhythms still beating hard in my heart.”
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Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar. “As I was riding my bike along the shore of Lake Inle, I got caught in a fierce squall typical of Southeast Asia. I visited an old monastic school seeking shelter. When I peeked inside, young monks who had finished chanting sutras were running around in a classroom, chasing after a small ball.”

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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