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Fumi Nagasaka, Marching Wolves (2022)
Fumi Nagasaka’s latest photobook follows the Marching Wolves – a group of Louisiana teenagers’ in a highs school marching bandPhotography Fumi Nagasaka

‘Pure, fragile’ portraits of Louisiana’s marching band teens

Fumi Nagasaka’s latest photo book follows the Marching Wolves – a group of Louisiana teenagers’ passing their highs school years in a marching band

“Youth is something that we all have once but can’t keep forever… it’s pure and fragile,” says Fumi Nagasaka. Born in Japan and based in New York, the renowned photographer has become known for her portraits which distil the precious vitality and precarity of youth. Exploring North America over the last two decades, her tender pictures preserve the fleeting moments of teenage life. Following on from her previous publications – which include Teenage Riot (2018) and Untitled Youth (2016) – her latest photo book Marching Wolves (published by Kahl) immerses us into the world of a high school marching band. 

“In 2017, I travelled to New Orleans to experience Mardi Gras,” Nagasaka tells Dazed in a conversation over email. “On the morning of the last day, we woke up early to watch the Zulu parade. Realising that it was already underway, we got stuck in the crowd and tried to get across the street to find space to watch. As we were looking for any place to cross, this marching band appeared and started to perform in front of me and caught my eye.” 

Something about the troupe of high school boys playing together as they marched through the frenetic streets spoke to the photographer. She didn’t know who they were or where they were from but, returning to New York, she managed to decipher the school’s name on their big drum. Tracking them down to Covington, Louisiana, she managed to contact the band’s manager and, from this point, began a photo project that would continue to document them over the next three years, getting to know individuals from the band as they moved through their high school years. 

Marching Wolves offers a window not only into the lives of these particular boys, but into a unique aspect of American life. “In Japan, we don’t really have marching bands and I wasn’t familiar with it until I started this project and learned just how big the culture is,” she says. “So I started from there and quickly I realised how serious the kids in the band were about their participation. A lot of kids who have grown up around New Orleans are surrounded by jazz so their knowledge of music is especially high. Some of their parents are musicians themselves and many of the kids keep playing their instruments after they graduate.” In her experience, the majority of the kids felt proud to be involved and showed a great deal of dedication. “There is a school band competition at some of the Mardi Gras parades so they practice really hard in preparation of the competitions.”

One story Nagasaka singles out from among her many enduring memories of these shoots is her meetings with a boy named Deuce. She encountered him for the first time in 2017 on her first trip south. ”He was a freshman and he had a kind of teenage attitude. I felt he didn’t want to be photographed. He was playing the cymbals at that time,” Nagasaka recalls. She crossed paths with him again the following year at Mardi Gras, by which time he’d acquired a girlfriend and had been promoted to a drum. “He was marching at the end of the band not really paying attention,” Nagasaka tells us. When she returned two years later – her last visit – Deuce had become the drum major and leader of the whole band. “He was especially caring for younger boys… cheering them up during parades and performing until he couldn’t lift his legs,” she says, recalling this transformation from a reluctant teen to a young man taking pride in the band and his position of responsibility. “It was interesting to watch him grow into his high school life.

Despite the turbulent political climate of the US, Nagasaka doesn’t want her work to become propaganda. “While it’s important to have messages in my work, I don’t really want to be too obvious,” she says. “One of the big challenges of documenting American culture is being careful when mixing fine art and politics. I don’t want to build relationships with people I meet and photograph based on our political beliefs.” While her work chronicles real life, Nagasaka continues to see herself as an artist rather than a documentary photographer. “I consider myself an artist, not a photojournalist so I want to make sure that my art comes from a pure place and celebrate the American culture that inspires me as a fine art photographer.”

Watch the video and take a look at the gallery above for a closer look at the portraits in Marching Wolves. 

Fumi Nagasaka’s Marching Wolves is published by Kahl and is available now.

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