In 1977, I traveled to the Deep South with a camera on my shoulder. It was my first trip abroad, and it seemed only natural to travel to the U.S., and to meet and get to know African-Americans there.

I had always admired writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni in my youth. As a young girl brought up in Japanese society, reared by my parents’ generation, I had to overcome social pressure and prejudice against women. I struggled in my own heart to avoid being swallowed up by all of that. I really felt sympathy with African-Americans, seeing something of my own situation in such writings. I had no reason not to photograph them.

The South is my favorite region, the land where I personally feel most nostalgic in the U.S. That year, I traveled all over the country by Greyhound bus. When I first reached the South, I couldn’t believe this place. So often, whether resting under a big oak, chatting with people in black neighborhoods, or in nearly any situation, I felt I had to remind myself, always in amazement: this is my first time here.

I met a lot of wonderful people: bright, tender and brilliant people. The camera instantly removed the distance between us, and the unknown became familiar. All through my trip, thanks to my camera, I was released.

I moved to Georgia from Tokyo in 2004, and in 2008, a most gratifying thing occurred for the country. When I heard the serious tone of black voices on the radio savoring Obama’s election victory, tears welled up. An African-American had become president.

Of course conditions for African-Americans have changed since 1977. Overall, the widening disparity between rich and poor, as well as the shrinking middle class of course affect African-Americans. Because of the off-shoring of U.S. industry, and the loss of menial labor to immigrants, unemployment is high among African-Americans.
The U.S. builds far more jails than schools or factories, and for poor African-Americans this reality often eclipses hopes of prosperity, to say nothing of opportunities of higher education.

Taking photos, talking and interacting with the people I met in 1977, I felt a shared physical energy. I noticed also a warmth and a glow in those many faces I saw—more so then than now. I sensed more hope, more possibility than now.

A photo document can communicate what kind of world we once lived in. Looking at these photos after these many years, I am sure one can see a growing story, a broader truth. I hope and believe these “Soul South” images will carry such precious significance forward for people in the future.

Kei Orihara
Los Angeles, California
November, 2022