Discover Japanese Mermaid Pearl Divers

These photos give us a glimpse into a world that has dwindled.

Ama, or women of the sea, captured the curiosity of Italian photographer Fosco Maraini in 1954. Maraini, also an anthropologist and ethnographer, took a film crew to Hekura Hegura-jima to document the folkloric Ama. What they found were independent women who were determined to carry out their traditions. Their mythological essence paired with fierce independence challenged gender stereotypes. For nearly 2,000 years, Japanese women living in Hekura Hegura-jima have made their livelihoods diving for oysters, pearls, seaweed, abalone, and other shellfish. These nearly naked sea workers made an excellent subject for Maraini’s work.

Maraini and his crew accepted the challenge of capturing the Ama whilst respecting their workspace. His approach is reminiscent of fashion photography; strong portraits that profile terrifically fit bodies. He portrays the women as  superheroines. The women of the sea made sure to display the balance of hard work and play. These photos give us a glimpse into a world that has dwindled. Due to the decline of sea life and new technologies, Ama have had to find other career trajectories. In 1956 there were nearly 17,600 Ama, and in 2010 only 2,174 remained. Maraini and his crew concluded their work by publishing the book Hekura: The diving girls’ island. This body of work reflects a time where technologies were simple and the Pacific Ocean was a phenomenal source of life. 

Discover: Fosco Maraini’s love for Japanese pearl divers

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A video from 1963 of the Ama: 年の海女ちゃん