In April 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, photographer Rinko Kawauchi pulled out a pair of binoculars to watch the birds. There were multiple swallow’s nests in sight from her home in Chiba, Japan: she would watch as the mothers would swoop down to catch food for the day, and then return to her nest, feeding each of her babies one by one.
With a telephoto lens, Kawauchi began photographing these swallows, culminating in a new book Des oiseaux, filled with ethereal images of the swallows she encountered every day. Birds hold a particular symbolism for Kawauchi, who sees them as a metaphor: “This is freedom, this is hope, this is life.” (C’est la liberté, c’est l’espoir, c’est la vie.)
What makes Kawauchi so distinctive is her light, iridescent greens, blues, and pinks like an opal shimmering atop her photos. One image captures a swallow perched on a rafter next to its nest; it is nearly impossible to tell what color the ledge naturally is, as looking at the photo is like looking through a prism, the light split into a soft, hazy rainbow.
Others are more clear-cut: photos of birds mid-flight, perched on telephone wires, or sitting on signposts against the crisp blue backdrop of the sky. But some of the most captivating images are of a swallow at its nest, feeding her babies one by one. Their still-developing soft beaks are wide open, crying for food. Every year, Kawauchi said, she would see swallows nests and wanted to photograph them, but it was never the right time or the right place. Finally, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, the right moment came.
Alongside the many photos of the swallows are pure skyscapes, luminous gradients of color that shift from pale white to pale blue. During the pandemic, when Kawauchi was confined to her home in Chiba, Japan, she often turned to the sky. “I would sometimes look at the sky and think about my friends and relatives who live far away,” she said in a statement, “and I would try to connect with them while thinking about how we are all alive under the same sky.”
She added that though the swallows may not be in every photograph, the skyscapes were taken from locations close to their nests. She captures other natural scenes, too; a budding branch or a tangle of trees, all capturing the swallows’ habitats and perspectives.
Kawauchi’s book is an ode to an everyday bird, finding beauty in what many people pass by on a daily basis without a second thought.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
Des oiseaux is published by Atelier EXB, and available for 35€.