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The Camera Looks Both Ways

As outdoor enthusiasts, we rarely go a day without being exposed to high-action photographs of climbers summiting peaks or stunning landscapes of dramatic coastlines and tranquil lakes. You’ll see these pictures everywhere, from the front page of NatGeo to your Facebook newsfeed. It’s easy to forget that behind every one of those pictures is a (human) photographer with a surprisingly personal and creative process—a process that also exists for you.

The photograph above of my friend rowing his handmade boat has the key elements of a high-impact picture. There’s dynamic tension between the paddle and the water, an expansive negative space contrasted by the sharp grainy details of the boat, and a handsome human face (or rather part of one) in the corner for context. What you don’t see however is my face, which at the time, was admittedly a confusing mashup of ear-to-ear grinning and teary eyes from intense nostalgia of a soon-to-be-long-gone summer of marvelous adventuring. It’s this subconscious creative and personal process that gives our outdoor photographs their meaning.

Later when I began documenting my family’s hometown, the beautiful city of Naruto in Tokushima prefecture, I focused my time and energy capturing the uniqueness of this area’s natural and cultural landscape: its famed whirlpools, Awa-odori dance festivals, art museums and temple pilgrimages.

More than half a year of cumulative shooting has passed since, and I’ve begun to see a trend in the subjects I photographed. Instead of iconic locations like the O-Naruto Bridge (pictured above), which connects Shikoku to Awaji Island, my favorite shots are of scenes completely detached from the stereotypes of this city.

Without realizing it, I had drifted closer to home. My pictures revealed the overlooked beauty of the Okazaki Kaigan, the mossy stone steps at Mt. Myoken and castle complex and the cracked cycling road that runs from my house all the way to Tokushima City, thirty-two kilometers away. You might think that as a photographer, I deliberately chose these locations and frames for their outdoor beauty, but that was a trivial consideration. The common bond that ties together these photos below is their significance to my subjective experience as someone who calls Naruto City home.

Looking at these photos now, I have a deeper appreciation of the old adage, “the camera looks both ways.” Each time we look through a camera’s viewfinder, we take a picture of ourselves along with the subject. In this case, my photos reveal my attitudes towards this city—one based heavily on shared experiences with family and friends.

During the age of coronavirus where most of us are facing a seemingly endless detention at home, we have few opportunities to venture outdoors. Instead of wallowing in our collective deprivation of vitamin D, we have a chance to relive every trip we’ve had in the outdoors because chances are, there’s a photo (or several hundred) from your past adventure.

I suggest looking back at those albums and trying to remember how you felt while taking those pictures. Of course, there will be the basic thoughts like “I was so hungry, I could’ve eaten ten bags of Cheetos” or “This was the best damn wall I’ve climbed.” But string those individual shots together and you may find something surprising about yourself while reflecting on those happy, dirty, muddy, tired, sunbaked, fulfilling and most of all, cherished memories of a life outdoors.

Jay Horita is a second-generation Japanese-American photographer who grew up in Los Angeles. After working as a park ranger and trip leader in Oregon and Washington for several years, he found himself in Tokushima, Japan where he had spent many childhood summers visiting his grandparents. He had originally planned to stay for a few months to help his grandparents run their minshuku but ended up extending his stay after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Making the best of the situation, Jay is currently photographing and exploring what Tokushima has to offer. See more of his work at OchawithJay.com.

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