Kei Nomiyama: Environmental Science Through the Lens, Interview

Documenting Nature’s Fragility: Kei Nomiyama’s Photography

Environmental scientist Kei Nomiyama uses photography to highlight pollution’s impact on nature, showcasing the beauty and fragility of marine life.

Kei Nomiyama is an associate professor of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology at the Center for Marine Environmental Studies (CMES) and the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Ehime University. He captures nature and wildlife photographs while studying environmental pollution issues, excelling in underwater photography. His patience and attention to detail enable him to capture unique images showcasing the rituals, behaviors, and connections between the underwater world and terrestrial life. His images of fireflies, snow monkeys, and whales reflect his determination to use photography as a scientific tool. Nomiyama’s work aims to communicate the beauty and fragility of nature and raise awareness about pollution and plastic contamination. Named the 2016 Open Photographer of the Year for his image “Enchanted Bamboo Forest,” his photographs have been exhibited by various news outlets, media, and websites worldwide. He highlights the beauty of nature to emphasize the importance of its protection to prevent its disappearance.

Kei Nomiyama‘s official site & Instagram

Can you tell us about your journey into the Center for Marine Environmental Studies as an Associate Professor, Nature photographer? What sparked your interest in this field?

Reading books about the decline of biodiversity due to human impact, especially since high school, made me want to become an environmental scientist, which is what I do now. I went to a university and began to study an environmental issue. In studying environmental issues, we focused on the effects of environmental destruction on living organisms, especially the effects of harmful chemicals. This is also related to the fact that I studied chemistry at university.

Kei Nomiyama
© Kei Nomiyama

What are some of the most significant research projects you have been involved in at the Center for Marine Environmental Studies? Can you share a particularly memorable discovery or breakthrough from your research in marine environments?

Ascertaining ecological effects by environmental pollutants from a global perspective: that’s the core of research activity in our lab in Center for Marine Environmental Studies.

Our laboratory undertakes research on development of high-precision analytical methods, local and global contamination status, environmental behaviour and fate, temporal trends, bio-concentration and -magnification features, toxicokinetics and risk assessment of environmentally persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals from a global perspective. Besides, using various environmental and biological samples stored in the environmental specimen bank (http://esbank-ehime.com/dnn/), we also promote advanced studies of environmental chemistry and interdisciplinary environmental studies. Our research focuses on a global scale including terrestrial, coastal, oceanic, polar regions and a whole ecological system from plankton to terrestrial and marine mammals.

In addition, we try to provide scientific policies and ways to protect the terrestrial and marine ecosystems from environmental pollution by various chemicals, which is very important for the government and society.

My studies focus on the sensitivity of different animals, such as marine and terrestrial animals, to harmful chemicals. As a recent new finding, we discovered that chemical pollution from humans is not only affecting the ocean, but also living things on land, and we found that pet cats are particularly contaminated. This discovery shows that cats love fish, so humans actively feed them fish, exposing them to harmful chemicals in the ocean that come from fish. And cats have weak defences against these harmful chemicals.

Kei Nomiyama’s work as a scientist and photographer emphasise the importance of conserving beautiful nature and wildlife.

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale © Kei Nomiyama

Capturing the enchanting beauty of fireflies at night, you won Open Photographer of the Year in the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards. You shared with the world an enchanting and magical nature phenomenon which is becoming increasingly rare due to the impact of climate change. What did this recognition mean to you?

After receiving the SWPA award in 2016, people became interested in my firefly photography and other ecological photography. I started to get people interested not only in photography, but also in my work and ideas as an environmentalist. This is a very good opportunity. My basic way of thinking is as a person who loves nature and animals. I became a scientist to protect nature, and I am interested in photography to record nature. I am looking for the opportunity to emphasise the importance of preserving beautiful nature and wildlife. We don’t need words, just beautiful photos of nature to convey the importance of what we cherish. I may never see the landscape I see before my eyes again. So I want to preserve it for the next generation, so that the emotion I felt when I captured it lives on.

dandelion firefly
Dandelion firefly © Kei Nomiyama

Did you face some unexpected moment during your photography shoot that made a difference in your work? Can you describe one of your favourite photographs and the story behind it?

I will answer these two questions together: two photographs are important to me.

I was interested in photographing the fantastic landscapes created by species of firefly: Luciola parvula, and one day I had the opportunity to learn about the biology of Luciola parvula. This firefly species is unable to fly freely because the wings of the female have degenerated during the evolutionary process. Therefore, the female attracts the male by climbing plants and glowing on them. This photo shows a female climbing on a dandelion to attract males.

This firefly species has lost its migratory diffusivity. This means that the Luciola parvula cannot move from where they were born and raised, and spend the rest of their lives in that area. This photo was taken on a small uninhabited island in Japan’s inland sea, known as the Seto Inland Sea. This island is cut off from land by the sea. But why are these fireflies, which cannot move, living quietly on this island? What this means is that this island was connected to the land tens of thousands of years ago, and the fireflies that inhabited the island at that time were left behind on this small island due to tectonic movement. I am moved by the flow of time and the continuing workings of life.

His photos of the fireflies were captured on mountains in Shikoku Island, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. He spent over 4 years finding the right areas to shoot in. He investigated an exact shooting location several times, due to finding the perfect location and shooting time.

small island sirefly
Small island firefly © Kei Nomiyama

What are the most challenging aspects of photographing marine environments?

The difficult thing about photographing marine life is that there is a high probability that you won’t see any of them, even if you just go out there to photograph them. Sometimes I have to persevere for days before I can photograph the creature. And photographing marine life comes at a cost. You have to prepare your boat, and you also need special equipment to dive into the ocean. It is also very weather dependent. To be honest, I have a lot of trouble preparing for the shoot. In recent years, the number of important marine animals in the marine ecosystem (such as orcas and dolphins) has been decreasing. Photographing marine life will become increasingly difficult in the future, and from now on, photographers must not only take pictures, but also emphasise the importance of protecting marine life.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your time spent making photos of animals and environments?

The most important lesson learned from spending time photographing animals and the environment is “patience” and “observation”. Photographing animals and nature often requires long periods of waiting to capture the right moment. In order to photograph animals in their natural behaviour, it is necessary to understand their habits and patterns and to adjust your timing accordingly. Natural environments and wildlife are unpredictable, and getting the ideal shot means accepting numerous tries and failures.

Sharp observation skills allow you to capture changes in light, subtle animal behaviours, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems that enhance the quality of your photographs. By closely observing animal behaviour and habits, you can predict their next moves. This increases your chances of capturing the decisive moment.

Most importantly, photographing animals and natural environments instils an understanding of nature’s grandeur and fragility, highlighting the importance of conservation. This fosters a greater awareness of environmental protection.

Orcas farmily
Orca farmily © Kei Nomiyama

Can you share with us a meaningful story from the backstage of your photos?

I don’t know if this is a meaningful story, but when I first started photographing orcas underwater, I spent the first week in a motorboat looking for them in temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius, and I couldn’t find any. If I had given up at that point, I might never have been able to take any pictures. After searching every day, he finally captured the moment when the family of orcas appeared. Experiences like this show us the importance of patience and planning.

One of the hallmarks of photography today is the use of the latest technology to capture the lives of animals in ever greater detail. Advances are being made in the use of drones and remote cameras to capture the natural behaviour of animals and places inaccessible to humans. This is important. When I photograph fireflies, I usually use a remote camera and move away from the shooting location. This allows you to capture more natural firefly dances.

What are some of the current challenges facing marine ecosystems that your research aims to address? 

Marine ecosystems are currently facing a variety of significant challenges. In my field of study, pesticides, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are contaminating marine waters, harming the health of marine organisms and ecosystems. Recent studies suggest that a chemical called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) could cut the world’s orca population in half over the next 100 years. More recently, marine environments are severely impacted by plastic waste. Microplastics, in particular, are ingested by marine life, causing health issues and entering the food chain. It is important for us to understand these pollutants and their effects on these organisms. Otherwise, society will not work to solve the problems.

Kei Nomiyama is an environmental scientist by profession and has been exhibited by many news, media companies, and websites all over the world.

Humpback Tail spotlight
Humpback Tail spotlight © Kei Nomiyama

How do you use your photography to raise awareness about marine conservation issues? What role do you believe visual arts play in scientific communication and environments?

I’m a scientist, not a commercial photographer. However, these activities lead me in the same direction. My basic way of thinking is as a person who loves nature and animals. I became a scientist to protect nature, and I am interested in photography to record nature. I am looking for the opportunity to emphasise the importance of preserving beautiful nature and wildlife. We don’t need words, just beautiful photos of nature to convey the importance of what we cherish. I might never see the landscape again right now before my eyes. So, I want to preserve it for the next generation so that the emotion when I capture it lives on.’

Monkey
Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) © Kei Nomiyama

Your photos show groups of monkeys protecting themselves, bats finding refuge, mothers caring for and cuddling their babies, and couples in the courtship phase. Many argue that these behaviours are purely instinctual and discourage attributing feelings to animals, reserving emotions only for humans. However, we are animals too. As a scientist and photographer who has observed many species up close, what is your perspective?

My feeling from studying the natural environment and living creatures is that there may be some emotion in such behaviour of animals (especially higher organisms). For example, in the cold forests of Japan, snow monkeys huddle together for warmth. These monkey balls are formed when a group of five or more huddle together to share body heat and keep warm. However, there is a strong social structure and rules within it. The weak monkey, its mother, and the old monkey remain protected and warm in the centre of the huddle. The younger the monkeys, the more they move outside the circle to protect the monkeys in the centre from the cold wind. There is a social structure in which the weak are collectively protected. It would be normal to think that there is more emotion in such behaviour than the instinct to protect one’s mate. It’s a very “human” thing to do. 

I am interested in this area of animal behaviour and would like to continue taking photos that help me understand the existence of emotions.

Photos courtesy of Kei Nomiyama

Last Updated on May 31, 2024 by retrofuturista

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