Visual Anthropologist Captures the Beautiful Complexity of Planet Earth

aerial view of a lumber yard and numerous bundles of timber and cleared forestry

When words fail to tell the story of the enigmatic expanse of our planet, photographer Aya Okawa’s photos provide viewers with captivating tales of wonder and robust expression.

Harnessing the power of imagery to deepen understanding of civilizations and cultures, Okawa’s storytelling seeks to highlight abstract patterns, various transformations of nature, and the intriguing intersections of natural and human systems.

Okawa is a visual anthropologist, a subdivision of social anthropology that evaluates and produces imagery for the purpose of studying humanity.

“All my shots celebrate the beautiful complexity of our planet. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to take it all in. So many times while I’m out shooting I am fully awestruck — just can’t believe my eyes and am so grateful to witness these scenes,” Okawa says.

Burnt umber colored landscape with a flock of whit birds

views of an island with somber pastel and story clouds in the distance

Okawa’s artful storytelling techniques manage to garner a deeply intrinsic gratitude for the Earth and its history.

“When I’m out making photographs, I try to capture the sense of wonder that I experience in front of a scene – whether it is my neighborhood, the side of the road, or an aerial shoot,” Okawa continues. “That initial sense of wonder is often followed closely by curiosity, and my edit process is thus deeply connected with research.”

Abstract terrain that is bright green and orange resembling river ways

Since her youth, the San Francisco-based photographer has been interested in the preservation or documentation of the memories of her travels. After using everything from Canon Powershot point-and-shoots, to film cameras, to more advanced systems, Okawa has allowed the process of photography to take her to new heights introspectively and in the greater world.

“When I was living internationally, I became aware of how the beliefs that most shaped my worldview were precisely the ones I didn’t realize I held — until they were illuminated by alternate circumstances, at least. While I didn’t start studying anthropology at that time, my interest was piqued […] So many of the forces that shape human behavior are not articulated in words, or thought of consciously on a day-to-day basis.” she says, speaking to PetaPixel.

aerial view of construction sites and developments, with many details and shows from the sun

view of colorful and sparse construction site

In time, photography for Okawa also evolved from its previous utility of studying humanity and its cultural trends to an appreciated reprieve and outlet for personal expression.

“It became a way to shut off the chatter of my mind and to tune into my surroundings and senses. Photography for me now is a practice of listening and observation that is an essential part of my life and internal alignment.” Okawa explains.

yellow and brown rocky terrain appearing smooth by teal colored wind gusts,

The sweeping perspective-broadening images that Okawa showcases are a direct mirror of her own experiences with perspective enlargement.

“About 10 years ago when I started flying in small planes I was struck by how tiny our ‘all-important’ lives actually looked from above when moments ago the concerns of terrestrial life had seemed so all-encompassing. Flying above my town for the first time, for example, I was shocked by how little I actually knew about the area that I had lived in for decades.”

rough icy and rocky marble like terrain

She then journeyed on foot and noticed how the little details of a fence or some form of barrier had kept her perspective of her neighborhood much smaller than it is in reality.

“I started capturing and studying images of the infrastructure around my community, and those of communities globally when I traveled, visually investigating the infrastructure that I previously hadn’t thought much about in everyday life and exploring the human-made systems that define the foundations of our societies and economies.”

Aerial views had kindled a love for the kinds of details that presently complements and exemplifies her work.

“As I edit I love to zoom in and find tiny details in the images that I couldn’t see at first – like tiny birds that stopped into a long exposure, or a couple on bicycles alone on a path amidst miles and miles of fields […] There are often unexpected details like that to discover in the images, that I only find during editing and printing,” Okawa shares.

aerial views of a parking lot

When attempting to tell the earth’s story, Okawa is focused and well-planned in her executions, but admits to yielding to surprise discoveries and encounters,

“The most valuable part of photography for me is allowing myself to be in tune — alert, quiet in the mind, and open to observe […] If it is an aerial series, I work out the logistics to connect with a pilot in the area, planning potential flight plans[…] In practice, of course, plans are made to be broken […] I love the open exploration of aviation which is incredible to experience.”

rocky terrain and blood orange tipped peaks

As for the challenges in the pursuit of her vision, weather, gear, and timing are an all too common and semi-predictable trio of foes.

“For aerial shoots, timing, weather conditions, and gear preparation are considerations. Many flights get canceled due to weather or visibility problems, like wildfire smoke or dust storms. And even in the air, weather conditions are always emergent.” Okawa continues.

“Things change so quickly in flight so I’ve learned to have everything I need gear-wise at my fingertips so as not to waste time in the air. I don’t want to waste flight time messing around with batteries (it has happened) or full XQD cards (also has happened lol)…Prep and communication with pilots about the flight plan and maneuvers in advance are great […] I’m so grateful to all the amazing pilots I’ve flown safely with over the years!”

Dark Green and white landscape with crack terrain

As for the type of gear, she shoots with a Nikon D850 favoring the image results and dynamics while tolerating its weight to achieve her goals.

“It is a heavy camera, but I love it and the tactile experience of shooting with it. I tried to switch to mirrorless but didn’t like adjusting to the digital viewfinder experience, especially for aerial shooting, so I switched back.”

When asked by PetaPixel about her thoughts on drone photography, Okawa is intrigued by the expression but satisfied with her current method of shoots,

dramatically steep and stacked brown and burnt orange hills

“Though I’ve never tried it, drone photography has advanced dramatically over the years. Some of the footage is very exciting to see — like long exposures from a drone! I still prefer to shoot aerial images from planes […] I just love the feeling of being in the air and exploring, and the type of shots I’m interested in is well suited to higher altitudes. But it’s really interesting to see the way drone photography is evolving, too.”

Her breathtaking images continue to beckon viewers to ask about the landscapes they are inhabiting or the story of how humanity is interacting with them, a cycle of curiosity that the photographer relishes.

“The more images I shot, the more I became fascinated by the mesmerizing patterns that emerged — in both the human-made and natural ecosystems, and my goal for the photos is to share this sense of awe and curiosity with others.”

desert like terrain, and windy like aesthetic, warm tones

Feedback on her projects has been inspiring as well as illuminating as audiences have shared their unique experiences with thinking differently about their areas of residence or abstract interpretations of her work.

“With the abstract images, I love to hear the associations people have. For some reason, people often think of food! I’ve heard ‘that looks just like broccoli…’ or caramel, or a strip of bacon […] On the flip side, another theme is toys: I’ve heard it looks like Legos, it looks like Space Invaders, like a video game. It’s so interesting to hear how unique each person’s reaction is!”

What’s on the horizon for the photographer is more contributions to the National Geographic Your Shot community (which she has been a part of for the past eight years) and working on other projects.

Hills with Bright golden sunlight and housing developments scattered across

“I’ve learned so much from this community and the Nat Geo editors that built and shepherded the community, and continue to enjoy connecting with the vastly diverse and incredibly talented photographers that participate there […]I love the Imogen Cunningham quote – ‘Which of my photos is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.’ I’m excited now to continue shooting a few projects I’ve been working on over the past year, including Energyscapes & the Value of Trees.”

For more from Aya Okawa, make sure to visit her Website and Instagram

Image credits: Aya Okawa