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A Panorama Of Central Asia

Posted: January 3, 2013

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He was born in Japan, speaks Russian and is based in Kazakhstan. And with his panoramic camera, photographer Ikuru Kuwajima captures a sweeping view of Central Asia.

A Kyrgyz yurt near the Song Kol Lake in northern Kyrgyzstan, 2012. The Kyrgyz are the region's original nomads, living mainly in the mountainous areas. A number of Kyrgyz still practice a semi-nomadic life during the summer.

A Kyrgyz yurt near the Song Kol Lake in northern Kyrgyzstan, 2012. The Kyrgyz are the region's original nomads, living mainly in the mountainous areas. A number of Kyrgyz still practice a semi-nomadic life during the summer.

The wall painting of the Silk Road in the center of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, was photographed in fall 2012. The historic city was a major stop for caravans of merchants centuries ago.

The wall painting of the Silk Road in the center of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, was photographed in fall 2012. The historic city was a major stop for caravans of merchants centuries ago.

A camel scavenges food from a garbage dump in a village south of Aktau, Kazakhstan, summer 2012.

A camel scavenges food from a garbage dump in a village south of Aktau, Kazakhstan, summer 2012.

Children enjoy swimming in Lake Balkhash in Priozersk, Kazakhstan, 2011. The city was the center of the Sary-Shagan polygon, a testing range for anti-ballistic missiles.

Children enjoy swimming in Lake Balkhash in Priozersk, Kazakhstan, 2011. The city was the center of the Sary-Shagan polygon, a testing range for anti-ballistic missiles.

Turkmenistanis line up during the ceremony for the anniversary of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 residents in the capital of Turkmenistan, October 2012.

Turkmenistanis line up during the ceremony for the anniversary of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 residents in the capital of Turkmenistan, October 2012.

Horses graze near a construction site in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2012. Astana is a growing new capital in oil-rich Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997.

Horses graze near a construction site in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2012. Astana is a growing new capital in oil-rich Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997.

According to Kuwajima, this crater, known as Door to Hell, was made by the Soviet government during a drilling accident in central Turkmenistan in 1971. The area is rich in natural gas, which has given the crater fuel to burn for more than 40 years.

According to Kuwajima, this crater, known as Door to Hell, was made by the Soviet government during a drilling accident in central Turkmenistan in 1971. The area is rich in natural gas, which has given the crater fuel to burn for more than 40 years.

A local woman sees abandoned ships in what used to be the Aral Sea, May 2012. The Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s because of irrigation projects.

A local woman sees abandoned ships in what used to be the Aral Sea, May 2012. The Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s because of irrigation projects.

The newly built district of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, 2012. The government has been constructing a number of buildings with white marble in the city, showing wealth from the abundant gas resources.

The newly built district of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, 2012. The government has been constructing a number of buildings with white marble in the city, showing wealth from the abundant gas resources.

A Kazakh man prays in the steppe near Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan, 2012. The Islamic population has been increasing around Central Asia.

A Kazakh man prays in the steppe near Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan, 2012. The Islamic population has been increasing around Central Asia.

Locals have lunch in the cafe by a market in the eastern Turkmenistan city of Mary, 2012.

Locals have lunch in the cafe by a market in the eastern Turkmenistan city of Mary, 2012.

The remains of the fortress of the ancient town of Toprak-kala in western Uzbekistan, 2012.

The remains of the fortress of the ancient town of Toprak-kala in western Uzbekistan, 2012.

Vasily Sokolov steers his boat, July 2011. Vasily has been making a living mainly by fishing while living in the abandoned military barracks in the Sary-Shagan polygon. The Sokolov family is one of a few families living there.

Vasily Sokolov steers his boat, July 2011. Vasily has been making a living mainly by fishing while living in the abandoned military barracks in the Sary-Shagan polygon. The Sokolov family is one of a few families living there.

Tanya Sokolov dresses her son, Erasu, while Galya, who lived temporarily with the Sokolov family, smokes on the beach of Lake Balkhash, July 2011.

Tanya Sokolov dresses her son, Erasu, while Galya, who lived temporarily with the Sokolov family, smokes on the beach of Lake Balkhash, July 2011.

Vasily and Erasu Sokolov wait for their friends' car to be fixed while they are heading to the city.

Vasily and Erasu Sokolov wait for their friends' car to be fixed while they are heading to the city.

Erasu Sokolov sits in a swing by the former military barracks, which his family uses as a house, August 2011.

Erasu Sokolov sits in a swing by the former military barracks, which his family uses as a house, August 2011.

A statue of Vladimir Lenin stands alone in the abandoned military settlement outside Priozersk, Kazakhstan, June 2011. There were some residential buildings around the statue, but all of the residents left the small military settlement after the Soviet collapse.

A statue of Vladimir Lenin stands alone in the abandoned military settlement outside Priozersk, Kazakhstan, June 2011. There were some residential buildings around the statue, but all of the residents left the small military settlement after the Soviet collapse.

Tanya Sokolov and her friends try to fix a car on the steppe outside the city of Priozersk in the Sary-Shagan polygon, a former site for Soviet ballistic-missile testing in Kazakhstan, 2011. Tanya and her family live in an abandoned military barracks outside the city.

Tanya Sokolov and her friends try to fix a car on the steppe outside the city of Priozersk in the Sary-Shagan polygon, a former site for Soviet ballistic-missile testing in Kazakhstan, 2011. Tanya and her family live in an abandoned military barracks outside the city.

Chickens stroll around the abandoned military barracks where the Sokolov family lives.

Chickens stroll around the abandoned military barracks where the Sokolov family lives.

It's not every day that you encounter a photographer based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, let alone one that was raised in Japan, went to school in Missouri and is fluent in Russian. That's Ikuru Kuwajima. Another thing that makes him unique: He often shoots with a panoramic camera.

I came across his work while reviewing photos for the Portland, Ore.-based PhotoLucida Critical Mass program, which exists to help photographers like Kuwajima get exposure.

There was a little statement with the photographs, but for the most part, the captioning was sparse — a lot like the photos themselves. Something about Kuwajima's photos of the big, open steppe of central Kazakhstan really captured my imagination. Many of his images document one family, the Sokolovs, living in a specific region called the Sary-Shagan polygon.

Kuwajima explains that during the Soviet era, more than 60 square miles were devoted to the testing of ballistic missiles. "However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991," he writes, "the majority of the residents, especially nonethnic Kazakhs, left the area that lost much significance and governmental supports."

A few remained, like the Sokolov family, and moved into the abandoned military barracks, making ends meet by fishing and scavenging metal scraps, Kuwajima says.

I asked Kuwajima to share some photos from the Sokolov story — as well as some favorites from his travels throughout Central Asia, where he's been based for two years now.

"I always like the vastness of it," he writes in our correspondence. "I feel relieved when I'm in the steppe, mountains or desert. ... I don't like crowded places very much and am a bit claustrophobic. I can be free from those things in Central Asia, for the most part."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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