Nomachi Kazuyoshi: A Photographic Pilgrimage in Search of the “Shapes of Prayer”Culture Art Images
The 1970s marked the beginning of a new age for documentary photography in Japan. The ripple effects of the postwar period of rapid economic growth made it possible for growing numbers of Japanese photographers to travel internationally, taking them beyond Japan’s borders to spend long periods traveling and working in countries around the world. Although Life magazine, the pioneering visual magazine whose photo-led stories helped lift its global circulation to nearly 8 million copies at its peak, stopped publication in 1972, the arrival of the travel boom and a growing interest in foreign cultures ushered in a new golden age of visual glossies, dominated in Western countries by National Geographic and Geo.
One Japanese photographer who provided a succession of remarkable stories to these magazines was Nomachi Kazuyoshi, whose illustrious career has seen him produce a vast number of unforgettable images, publish a succession of books with international publishers, and has taken him on a series of photographic pilgrimages to some of the world’s holiest places.
A Life-Changing Trip to the Sahara
Nomachi was born in the village of Mihara in the mountains of Shikoku’s Kōchi Prefecture. As a student at the Kōchi Prefectural Technical High School he was passionate about jūdō, even winning titles in the prefectural championships. He was in eleventh grade when he first held a camera. The experience changed his life. After leaving school in 1965 he joined the Osaka branch of Panasonic, but left after two years, unable to give up his dream of becoming a photographer. He moved to Tokyo, where he studied under Hada Toshio and later Kijima Takashi, famous for his photographs of Mishima Yukio, and set out to build himself a career as a commercial and advertising photographer. In 1971 he went independent and branched out on his own, setting up Studio Nom, a commercial photography company.
A turning point in Nomachi’s approach to his craft came in 1972, when he traveled with friends to Europe for a skiing trip in the Alps. After the tour was over, he took time off, bought a second-hand car, and crossed the Mediterranean into North Africa to travel through the Sahara before returning to Japan. This was the first time he had seen the desert, and Nomachi found himself entranced by its vast, arid emptiness, which seemed to carry the marks of the vast stretches of time that had passed since the beginning of the Earth. He was also impressed by the traditional lifestyles of the people who lived in this harsh environment, where daytime and nighttime temperatures can sometimes vary by nearly 40 degrees Celsius. It marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the Sahara, where he would return numerous times in the years that followed.
In the course of 10 trips between that first visit and 1993, Nomachi would eventually spend more than 800 days working in the Sahara, sometimes accompanying camel caravans, at other times using a plane to visit prehistoric cave paintings, and constantly struggling to keep his precious film safe from the brutal temperatures. The results of his first prolonged work trip to the region were published in in 1978 in the collection Sahara.
The book was published in collaboration with Mondadori in Italy as well as publishers in France, Britain, and the United States. He also held a solo exhibition of his Sahara photographs at the Ginza Nikon Salon in Tokyo. In 1979, he published Sinai, a collection of images taken on long journeys through Israel and the Sinai, visiting the landscapes that had formed the historical backdrop to the Old Testament. This too was published internationally. These two books started to make Nomachi and the huge scale and ambition of his work internationally known.
Using Commercial Techniques in Documentary Photography
Nomachi’s next project took him the length of the Nile, traveling down Africa’s longest river from its source to the sea. The project encompassed five journeys between 1980 and 1982. Nomachi used a Toyota Land Cruiser brought over from Japan to travel through much of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda over a combined total of 400 days, traversing the course of the White and Blue Niles. The collection that resulted was full of astonishing photographs documenting the lifestyles of peoples including the pastoral Dinka people who live with their herds in South Sudan, ash-covered Nuba wrestlers, and pilgrims offering prayers in the monolithic rock churches of the Ethiopian highlands.
The collection that Nomachi published of these photos in 1983, The Nile, captures his approach to photography well. Even while using his Land Cruiser and regular flights to cover wide distances, he returned repeatedly to certain locations, often spending long periods in the same places and building up a rapport with the local people that comes across in the warmth and depth of his images. His experience in the Sahara fed into this new project, which took him to wider parts of the Islamic world, including Nubia in North Sudan and Egypt, the impact of one project inspiring ideas for another. This was to become a hallmark of Nomachi’s work.
Nomachi’s time as a commercial photographer also helped shape his style. In the world of advertising, clarity of theme and message is key—a successful photo must have a strong emotional impact on readers. Nomachi’s documentary photographs made dramatic use of vivid colors to astonish viewers by showing them parts of the world they had never seen before. This approach, which brought out the spectacle of these remarkable sights and the visual properties of his subjects, took advantage of skills that Nomachi had honed during his days as a commercial photographer. These early projects were the result of a determination to apply the techniques and communicative power of commercial photography to documentary photography.
To coincide with the publication of his book on the Nile, Nomachi held an exhibition of his photographs that traveled to cities around the world. The exhibition brought him to international prominence, and his next book collection, The Eternal Desert, published the same year, won the third Domon Ken Prize for Photography in 1984.
In the Footsteps of the Red Army
Nomachi’s travels continued to take him far afield in pursuit of new images, driven by a restless energy and remarkable powers of imagination. Having first visited Ethiopia during as part of his travels along the Nile, he returned for a total of nine visits by 1997, spending 426 days shooting at locations throughout the country. These photos were ultimately compiled in the collection Bless Ethiopia, published in Germany and Britain in 1998. Ethiopian Orthodoxy developed as a unique form of Christianity with its own doctrines from the fourth century, absorbing influences from ancient Judaism and Greek civilization. Today the country is also home to sizeable Muslim and Protestant populations. Nomachi’s ambitious project to capture and communicate the whole of Ethiopia’s vast and diverse landscapes, as well as its religious and cultural life, continued into the new century, and a second volume of his photographs of the country was published in 2018 as the book Ethiopia: The Legendary Ark.
In June 1988 Nomachi embarked on a 1,200-kilometer trip across China on an assignment for the photography magazine Days Japan, following the route of the Red Army’s Long March. The trip continued until May the following year, and the resulting photographs were published in 1989 in the book Dreams and Reality of the Long March: China, Land of Realism. The journey started from the site of Mao Zedong’s 1927 uprising near Mt. Jinggang and followed the route of the 1934–35 Long March, across the Xiang River and the Tibetan Plateau before finally reaching the Loess Plateau in northern Shaanxi Province. The flag used on the original march is still preserved in the Military Museum of the People’s Revolution. The trip gave Nomachi a vivid insight into an unadorned China and its past, present, and future. After finishing his photographic work, he he returned to Beijing, arriving in the city in time to witness the Tiananmen Square uprising. In his afterword to the book, Nomachi describes hearing the voices of young Uighur protestors shouting “Allahu akbar!” “I felt something in the pit of my stomach, something that I couldn’t put into words.”
In 1990, Nomachi received the Minister of Culture’s Arts Encouragement Prize and the Photographic Society of Japan’s Award of the Year for his book on the Long March and his 1989 collection The Nile, which came out in an international edition published in seven countries including Japan, the United States, and Britain. Further developing the subject of his book on the Long March, in 1992 Nomachi published Tibet in a German, American, and Asian edition, featuring photographs taken throughout Tibet, including on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash.
Photographing the Holy Sites of Islam
During his visits to Tibet, Nomachi was struck by the pilgrims he saw prostrating themselves on the ground as they approached the holy city of Lhasa, impressed by their feelings of awe and gratitude for nature and the sincerity of their desire to get closer to the divine. The trip inspired him to embark on a new project, a search for what might be called the original form of prayer, common to religious ceremonies and pilgrimages all over the world.
Since his first trip to the Sahara in 1972, Nomachi had continued to travel widely. On his travels, he had repeatedly felt the presence of something like to an original form of prayer that connected human beings directly with God and seemed to transcend the sectarian differences between Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or any of the other major religions. Nomachi started to suspect that it might be possible to gain a better understanding of this universal form of prayer through photography.
In particular, Nomachi was increasingly drawn to learn more about Islam. He had been fascinated by the spiritual world of the religion since his visits to Africa. In 1994, he was approached by a publisher in Saudi Arabia who invited him to photograph the holy mosque in Medina. In December that year, he made the Shahada (Confession of Faith) at the Islamic Center in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, and became a Muslim. Although this was done partly to allow him to visit Mecca and Medina, the two holy places of Islam, Nomachi also felt a srong affinity for this religion that had grown up in the harsh, arid environment of the desert.
Nomachi’s work photographing the two holy mosques began in January 1995. Published in 1997, his book Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant contained photographs that documented Islamic prayer and rituals including the Lailat al-Qadr, which draws over a million of the faithful to the Great Mosque in Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan. The book was another international collaboration, published in six countries including the United Arab Emirates. The same year, a collection Al Madinah Al Munawwarah (Medina the Radiant) was published by Tharaa International in Saudi Arabia. Nomachi’s remarkable image of a vast swirling mass of white-clad pilgrims making the sevenfold circuit around the Kaaba in Mecca seems to encapsulate the pinnacle of his quest to capture the shapes of prayer in photography.
In 2009 he published Persia, a comprehensive photographic introduction to the Persian culture of Iran that explored the spiritual lives of the Shia faithful, quite different from the beliefs of Sunni Muslims.
A Continuing Journey of Pilgrimage
The Mecca book marked a landmark in Nomachi’s career. In the years that followed, he continued to dedicate himself passionately to his work as a photographer. Inori no Daichi (Lands of Prayer), an exhibition that brought together some of the best images from throughout his career, was shown at the Hiratsuka Museum of Art in Kanagawa Prefecture in 2003, and then at a succession of other museums around the country. In 2005, the book Ijigen no daichi e (To a Land in Another Dimension) traced Nomachi’s career over 30 years, from the perspectives of “landscape and people.” Seichi junrei (Nomachi: Le Vie del Sacro), a collection of his pilgrimage photographs augmented by recent work showing pilgrims in the Ganges River in India and the Andes Mountains of South America, was held at the Kōchi Prefectural Museum of Art in 2008 and the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2009, together with a book with the same title. His photographs of the Ganges were also compiled in Ganges, published in 2011.
In the 2015 A Photographer’s Pilgrimage, he directed his attention to people living at altitudes between 2,000 and 4,000 meters above sea level.
In 2009, Nomachi was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon, one of Japan’s highest honors, and in 2019 he became chair of the Japan Professional Photographers Society. Now in his mid-seventies, his creativity and passion for photography show no sign of waning. The journeys of this photographer, blessed by the divine, seem likely to continue for some time yet.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Laylatul al-Qadr, marking the first revelation of the Koran by God to the Prophet Mohammed, is held throughout the night from the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan at the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Around a million pilgrims take part. Photograph taken in 1995, and included in Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant. All photographs © Nomachi Kazuyoshi.)