Growing up in the busy city of Tokyo, Japan, Ōtake Hidehiro (Hide) had never truly experienced being deep in nature. However, an eye-opening camping trip during his university days sparked his profound connection to the natural world and ultimately led him to the people and land of Pimachiowin Aki.
We recently sat down with Hide in Winnipeg to talk about his journey.
Your camping trip as a member of mountaineering club was pivotal. You said it was the first time you realized that the environment you grew up in was human-built.
It opened my eyes to the natural world far away from cities. That’s the first moment I really loved it. Because I’m not a factory-made robot; I was born as part of nature. We set up a tent and slept under a sky full of stars. We lit a fire and fished stream trout. There was no running water or electricity. So I really loved the simple camping life and began to notice how beautiful this planet is.
The camping experience steered you away from your initial career choice and guided you toward nature photography.
Yes. At that time, I wanted to be a journalist, but I thought, oh, I really care about nature instead of the economy and politics. I have skills to explore the woods and mountains, so I really want to tell the story of spiritual nature, which probably won’t be in the newspaper. But it’s very important.
I became a photographer because I wanted to be in nature.Ōtake Hidehiro
So how did you get your start as a nature photographer?
I bought my first SLR camera at the end of my third year of university, but I was struggling to find my first theme. Then, I had a dream. I was in a small cabin and snow was falling. A creature came in and we looked at each other. It was like a big dog. Whoa! But it’s too severe. When I woke up, I thought, oh, a wolf came; I saw the wolf walking in my dream.
Until that dream, I had never even considered wolves as a topic. Wild wolves had vanished from Japan over 100 years before.Nippon.com, Photographer Ōtake Hidehiro: Following the Dream Wolf
I wanted to learn more about the wolf. I went to the library the next morning and found a beautiful portfolio taken by world-famous National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg. There’s a wolf. And it’s beautiful. And it’s in the woods. It looks like my dream. So I thought, I really want to go where this photo was taken, and meet Jim to learn photography under him as an assistant.
[Jim] answered my request with gentle refusal, saying that he did not need an assistant. However, he saw my sincerity, and offered a compromise. He told me, “It’s important to face the natural world alone. Good work takes time, so you should start shooting now.”Nippon.com, Photographer Ōtake Hidehiro Finds His Path Forward
Your decision to travel to Ely, Minnesota to meet Jim in 1999 marked the beginning of your decades-long exploration of the Northwoods wilderness of North America. You recently published a photo book celebrating 20 years of work, including photos taken near and in Pimachiowin Aki.
When my publisher agreed to produce a photo book, I wanted to show four things: the northern landscapes, various wildlife including the elusive wolf, the joy of adventure of canoeing and snowshoeing, and the First Nation way of life on land. The book has about 180 photos. Three photos of wolves were used – a lone wolf watching me from the distance, an aerial shot of wolves walking on a frozen lake, and a wolf pack feeding on a deer, which shows their behaviour and interaction.
What sets your work apart is not just the visual beauty but your deep engagement with Anishinaabeg who steward this land. A turning point in your career came in 2010 when you were invited to a Healing Camp on the shores of Weaver Lake at Poplar River First Nation.
Yes. Before then, I heard a little bit about the World Heritage project because I lived in Red Lake, Ontario for over a year between 2005-2007. I wanted to go to the Healing Camp to take pictures and learn. I met lots of people from Poplar River and other communities. After the Healing Camp, I took a flight to Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi and people showed me around. It was just a short visit. I really wanted to spend more time there.
Getting to know the First Nations people who still maintain tradition as hunters and gatherers in this land finally gave me a new perspective on the trips I was taking.Nippon.com, Photographer Ōtake Hidehiro Is Guided by the Blaze
You have traveled to this region numerous times since. What keeps bringing you back to Pimachiowin Aki?
Culture is a very interesting thing for me. Before, I thought this place is wilderness; there are not many people. But I realized after my experience of learning from Elders and archaeologists, oh, this is a place where people have lived for thousands of years. Pictographs and a piece of pottery or stone tools can be found in places. I really want to tell the story about how they are connected to the land.
You are drawn to the stories embedded in the landscape…
Yes, now I look at the landscape and understand that it’s not just forest or water. I can feel the history of the land. When I was traveling by canoe in Pimachiowin Aki, I found many pieces of pottery around my campsite. When I showed a photo of it, an archaeologist told me that the site has been used for at least for more than two thousand years. I remembered there’s a waterfall nearby. It’s a good place to get fish. There’s a nice sandbar, so maybe it’s a good landing spot for canoes for hunting. You can walk through a nice hill, which has lots of blueberries or medicines.
I want to take photos to show it’s the wildlife’s homeland too. To get a good photo of wildlife, you have to know their behavior and lifestyle. Like that squirrel. That’s his house and he has probably never seen people before, so he was kind of getting nervous. He’s busy collecting the pinecones to survive the winter. I should be quiet and respect his space because I am just a visitor to his homeland.
So that’s a very important part of this place. I really love that Pimachiowin Aki gives me a lot of opportunities – not just wildlife and landscape and camping, you know, there’s always people there to teach me and so many things I can do, and so many places I haven’t seen. I’m not just coming here to take pictures and sightsee. I want to actually learn and experience the processes of living with nature. Most people living in cities have lost that connection and wisdom.
It seems only natural that I would be even more drawn to the lifestyles and culture of the Indigenous Peoples who had coexisted with this natural environment for so long.Nippon.com, Ōtake Hidehiro Learns More Lessons of the Life Giving Earth
Your work reflects on our connection to nature, appreciates its fragility, and recognizes the responsibility we all hold to preserve it. But for many people, life is far removed from nature. What does it mean for you to connect with the natural world?
When you’re camping or traveling by canoe or snowshoe, you can feel a very deep connection to nature because you can feel wind, water and snow closely. And you can even get a fish! That’s local food. And it’s a gift from nature. So you can appreciate it more.
If you hold a paddle you can feel it grab the water. You feel the connection. And once you get on the shore, it’s nice. It makes me very happy, right? It’s like a welcoming. Just to stand on and touch it and say thank you very much for this nice landing.
And when I drink water, it connects me to nature. Sixty per cent of my body is water, so more than half of my body is from this lake. I don’t want to pollute it. So those connections—the connection with a tree—you start feeling like the tree is a friend. And even dead trees can become a good friend when you’re cutting up firewood. They make you warm. I appreciate that very much.
Cultural experiences, like learning from Elders and participating in net fishing and collecting medicine plants, have deepened your appreciation for Pimachiowin Aki. You were here this fall and spent time with Pauingassi First Nation Guardian Colin Owens and his wife Cora.
It has been great to see their lifestyle of living off the land!
What’s next for you in Pimachiowin Aki?
I would like to learn about seasonal activities and am interested in photographing life on the land throughout the year. So, spring duck or geese hunting, winter trapping for beaver and snowshoe hare would be interesting subjects.
Colin is interested in showing me how to snare snowshoe hare and catch fish by net under ice, and I would love to photograph it.
Your commitment to promoting awareness of Pimachiowin Aki extends beyond photography. You give speeches and presentations in Japan and North America and have even led tourist groups from Japan to parts of the boreal forest that touch Pimachiowin Aki.
In 2013, I took a school group to Red Lake, and in 2018 and 2019, I took two groups of people from their 20s-70s. They said it was one of the best trips ever. Just seeing a wolf track on sand or mud was a very special experience because it is now impossible in Japan! They could see the natural beauty but also experience the lifestyle connected to the land.
Is there anything more you’d like to share with the people of Pimachiowin Aki?
Before, I didn’t pay much attention to my own culture. But when I’m experiencing the different culture, I am learning my own culture. Being proud of my own roots makes me stronger. Everything has a spirit in nature – I’ve grown up with that in my culture, too. And I feel the connection. I’m not born here. I’m not living here. But I really want to learn about this area. So I hope people look at their culture, the precious lifestyle and traditions you have, and are proud. It’s really wonderful. And it’s very important for all of us.
Main Photo (top): Ōtake Hidehiro