By Asma Al-Mohattwari
“Will what is behind their eyes ever be revealed to me?” Japanese photographer Hisao Taira wants to know. Taira, age 53, has visited Yemen and the Yemeni people 11 times over the years.
“I became interested in Yemen because the poet Arthur Rimbaud once lived in Aden. He had given up poetry and was living as a merchant. This in itself was fascinating, but it was the fact that it had happened in Aden, Yemen, that began to pique my curiosity. Switching from poetry to commerce in Yemen may have been only a staging post in Rimbaud’s journey through life, but something must have attracted him to stay a while. And now I too have fallen under Yemen’s spell,” Taira said.
An renown photographer, he had little exposure to photography until junior high. While his early childhood was spent building things and playing alone, photography came into his life when a fashion student was tasked with photographing the school. He was also asked to take a photo of a steam locomotive; Taira ended up taking the photos instead. He was drawn to photographing people and sceneries, and decided to study photography professionally. He enrolled in Osaka University for Arts.
After graduating from university, Taira found work at a printing company as a cameraman; he worked there for 12 years before deciding to give freelancing a chance. He has now been freelancing for 17 years, Taira said.
He has been heavily influenced by the Brazilian photographer, Sebastian Salgado. His photos have a strength to them that grab your attention.
While focusing his photos on people and nature, Taira says he’s particularly interested in photographing people whose faces are difficult to read.
Recounting his first visit to Yemen, Taira says he had a bit of a rough go. He visited during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when Muslims around the world pray from sunrise to sunset. At the time, he knew little about Yemeni culture or the Muslim faith, and didn’t anticipate being unable to get lunch or even drink water. He decided to follow the maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Unfamilar and strange, Yemeni customs took a while for Taira to understand. He feels that he’s bridged that divide, however, and feels closer to the country and the people.
“It seems that the more we study Islam and deepen our understanding, the closer we can come to the people. To me they seemed to be taking off masks, and even more than my approaches to them, I felt them coming closer to me. I was admitted to their culture, and it was perhaps only then that they revealed to me that wonderful clarity in their eyes. Or maybe I simply noticed it myself.”
During his 11 visits to the country, he’s visited every region of the country except for the far eastern region. He most likes vibrant Old Sana’a, Shahara and Socotra Island, a dream for nature photography. Aside from his curiosity about Yemeni eyes and all they hide (and reveal), Taira says he really appreciates the kindness of the Yemeni people.
“I felt there was so much behind the eyes briefly directed towards me as I took photographs, and thus my journey of discovery began. Traveling by car across the rough landscape, the road I could see up ahead would disappear into a mirage. I felt as though what I was seeking lay beyond,” he added.
Taira says the Japanese find Yemen, as reflected in his photographs, inspire them deeply. They marvel at the uniqueness of Yemen and her culture, the full confidence of the Yemeni people.
“What is the force driving me? What’s leading me forward?” Taira asked. These are the questions constantly buzzing in his head. “When photographing Yemenis, I sometimes looked through my viewfinder and felt time had stopped. It was as if the lear depth of their eyes was absorbing all sense of time.”