Mari Ito describes herself as “a photographer who has been taking photos of ethnic minorities and free-range pigs in Yunnan, China, for the past 10 years.”

Free-range pigs? She said: “In the beginning in Yunnan, when I was taking pictures of people, I saw pigs walking around all over the place, with nobody taking much notice of them. I photographed them. Then people in Japan, when they saw those photographs, seemed really interested in those pigs. I created a world around pigs.”

Her highly individual specialization seems very unexpected in a young Japanese woman who was born in Providence, R.I. Mari’s parents met each other when they were both on scholarships in America. Her father was a student of mathematics at Yale University, and then a professor at Brown University. Mari was 12 and her sister four years younger when the family returned to Japan.

“I spoke only English, and was a complete foreigner in Japan,” she said. Eventually she entered the international department at Jochi University, and studied comparative cultures. She went to work for Yamaichi Securities.

“They offered me a good job as an analyst of the food industry,” she said. “I was one of the first women to be given equal treatment there with men. I had no experience in Japanese society, and I wanted to know how to act. My Japanese was not so good. They let me study on the job, and I stayed for five years. However, something was not right.”

As a child, Mari liked writing and wanted to be a writer. As a young adult, she changed her mind as she felt the pull of two languages. She wanted to find another medium for herself. “I had a photographer friend who suggested I buy a reflex camera. After finishing my first roll of film, I was fascinated by photography, and decided to make it my career.” She resigned from Yamaichi Securities.

At the same time, she said, “I was really tired of city life. I had never seen rural life in Asia, and wanted to see somewhere really simple. I looked at a map, and found a place in Yunnan Province near the border with Burma. It seemed really different from anything I had known.”

She went. “It seemed as though something that I was looking for existed there. Although the people were not well off, they lived in harmony with nature and looked radiant. I felt as though they possessed something very important in life that city people had long lost.” Since that first visit to Yunnan 10 years ago, Mari has been returning regularly and frequently.

She photographed landscapes and village scenes. She did closeups of vegetables and flowers, and clothing drying on bamboo fences. She found visual delight in hens scratching in red soil, in pots balanced over open fires, and plates of food set out for families.

Then she published a book, “Pigs of Yunnan,” a collection of endearingly whimsical studies taken in the villages of seven Chinese minorities. “In Bulang village,” she said, “there were lots of free-range pigs walking freely, sometimes even going into houses. It is something that cannot be seen in Japan. They ate when they liked, slept whenever and wherever they pleased, and always seemed to be doing things at their own pace, never in a hurry. They looked very happy. Seeing these pigs, I always feel as though I also should not rush, and should do things at my own pace, and enjoy life. Living in a big city like Tokyo, I often forget these basic but important things.

“Through pigs, one can see many different aspects of life in Yunnan. Most free-range pigs can be seen in relatively poor villages deep in the mountains. Each pig seems to have a different personality, as people do.

“In one village there were lines of one-story houses made out of red soil and bricks, with corn hung to dry by the front doors. Many pigs roamed around the village. They were pink and almost the same color as the houses. One pig that was walking down the road turned its head toward me. The moment our eyes met, it made a run for it.”

A member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society, Mari has been exhibiting for five years. In 1997 she became the first Japanese photographer to exhibit in the Yunnan Museum of Art, China. In that same year she became the first female recipient of the Taiyo Award. From May 20 to 30 she will hold a big exhibition at the Konica Plaza Gallery, Takano Building 4 fl., Shinjuku. Tel. (03) 3225-5001