It’s not every day that you encounter a photographer based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, let alone one that was raised in Japan, went to school in Missouri and is fluent in Russian. That’s Ikuru Kuwajima. Another thing that makes him unique: He often shoots with a panoramic camera.
I came across his work while reviewing photos for the Portland, Ore.-based PhotoLucida Critical Mass program, which exists to help photographers like Kuwajima get exposure.
There was a little statement with the photographs, but for the most part, the captioning was sparse — a lot like the photos themselves. Something about Kuwajima’s photos of the big, open steppe of central Kazakhstan really captured my imagination. Many of his images document one family, the Sokolovs, living in a specific region called the Sary-Shagan polygon.
Kuwajima explains that during the Soviet era, more than 60 square miles were devoted to the testing of ballistic missiles. “However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,” he writes, “the majority of the residents, especially nonethnic Kazakhs, left the area that lost much significance and governmental supports.”
A few remained, like the Sokolov family, and moved into the abandoned military barracks, making ends meet by fishing and scavenging metal scraps, Kuwajima says.
I asked Kuwajima to share some photos from the Sokolov story — as well as some favorites from his travels throughout Central Asia, where he’s been based for two years now.
“I always like the vastness of it,” he writes in our correspondence. “I feel relieved when I’m in the steppe, mountains or desert. … I don’t like crowded places very much and am a bit claustrophobic. I can be free from those things in Central Asia, for the most part.”