Wars and disasters beget sorrow and misery. But instead of dwelling on these themes, Masako Imaoka, 37, a Tokyo-based freelance photographer, focuses on the resilience of women who go on with their daily lives in the face of such calamities.
Imaoka has witnessed how women continue to care for their families, cooking and raising children, even after their homes and other foundations of life have been ravaged.
“I want to portray the strength and tolerance of women who are trying to support their families and comfort people around them” even in the face of extreme difficulty, she said.
Imaoka hopes her images inspire her Japanese audience to feel a sense of solidarity with those women who live in far-flung lands totally different from life in Japan.
Since summer 1999, Imaoka has traveled extensively to war-torn and disaster-struck areas in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Her trips have taken in the Kosovo region in the former Yugoslavia when it was being decimated by ethnic conflict, Taiwan in the wake of a massive killer earthquake and Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime.
On Saturday, Imaoka’s photo collection, titled “ReBirth: Women Beside the Ruins,” will hit the nation’s store shelves.
The book features photos taken in Kosovo, Eritrea, Macedonia and Afghanistan between 1999 and 2002, as well as in Taiwan and India following major earthquakes.
In contrast to the hardships the people captured in Imaoka’s photographs have had to endure, many of her works are colorful, as if to symbolize the liveliness of her subjects.
The photos include one of a woman wearing makeup, another in a vividly colored traditional costume breast-feeding a boy, and a pink wedding dress displayed in a shop window in Kabul, a scene that would never have been allowed during the Taliban rule.
It was one bus ride that opened the door for Imaoka to start her career as a professional photographer.
After leaving a company in March 1999 to become a photographer, Imaoka traveled to Turkey at age 33.
During that trip, she visited a refugee camp for ethnic Albanians escaping Serbian oppression during ethnic strife in Kosovo.
When the conflict ended, the Albanian refugees in the camp started returning to Kosovo. Some that Imaoka had met at the camp invited her to visit them in Kosovo.
So one day, Imaoka said, she jumped on a bus that shuttled daily between the refugee camp and Kosovo and entered the region along with refugees heading home.
While photographing people in Kosovo, she realized that many of her photos naturally featured women, leading her to take up women as a main theme of her work.
Last year, Imaoka repeatedly visited people she had become acquainted with on her previous trips, hoping to get to know them better and reflect their true feelings in her works.
“I try to take photos that capture true feelings, even a flash of it,” said Imaoka, who started making frequent trips to Afghanistan. Last year alone, she traveled there three times.
Imaoka said it is particularly difficult to develop trusting relationships with Afghan people because they have been betrayed by even their friends and relatives during the country’s social and political upheaval of the past two decades.
She also feels it is worth observing the process of women gradually resuming their social activities in the war-torn country, especially since they were oppressed under the Taliban rule.
Imaoka said she is drawn to those women trying to overcome their hardships because of their simple and natural desire to get life going — feelings often overlooked by people in Japan, where life offers many choices.
Some women Imaoka met said they could no longer bear their hardships and wanted to die, but they also said they must live to care for their children.
“Those women are trying to survive each day,” Imaoka said. “Japanese people (on the other hand) live for the future and appear to be confused.”