Watching the BBC News in the aftermath of the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami on the east coast of Japan, I vividly remember the foreign correspondent reporting from a town with an unusual name: Rikuzentakata. Little did I know then that Rikuzentakata would come to symbolise the unimaginable destruction of the earthquake and tsunami. In months to come, reporters, journalists and photographers would descend on this town and try to capture the sense of loss and grief caused by the disaster. A documentary called Japan’s Tsunami: Caught on Camera harrowingly dissected the video footage produced by the few survivors who were there that day in March 2011. I would begin to associate Rikuzentakata with an image of destruction.
I only realised later that Rikuzentakata is also the hometown of the photographer Naoya Hatakayema. By mere chance, Hatakeyama embarked on a longterm project in 2002, capturing the town’s close spiritual association with the sea. In one image taken before the tsunami, Hatakeyama photographed a tree with gohei, or wooden wands with paper streamers used in Shinto rituals, which were meant to purify the tree from the spirits. On his return to Rikuzentakata, the massive tree withstood the forces of the tsunami while the destruction of the town is clearly visible in the background to the photograph. Hatakeyama’s personal connection to this place thus resulted in an eerie set of images that capture the town before and after the disaster. His photographs ultimately depict the landscape as a complex set of binary opposites: the past and the present, a once safe place now destroyed.
In his book Umimachi, or literally ‘Ocean Town’ or ‘Sea Town’, the photographer Koji Onaka photographed the Sanriku district, which was badly affected by the tsunami, between 1991 and 1993 (Onaka now sells these photographs to raise funds for children orphaned by the disaster). In the first instance, the photographs depict a sense of romance and nostalgia often associated with sea side towns in Japan. Similar to Shohei Imamura’s film Warm Water Under the Red Bridge, Onaka’s photographs depict a place essentially at peace with itself and its natural surroundings. To emphasise this sense of peacefulness, the photographs are also purposefully banal: boys playing baseball, girls waiting for the school bus, a bunch of fishermen cleaning their tools near the harbour. In the context of the 2011 tsunami, the images are haunting reminders that the tsunami flattened a strip of land photographers once recognised as beacon of peace and harmony. Here, the primary role of photography is as a medium of memory, allowing those who look at photographs to remember a place that does not longer exist.
At the time the earthquake struck, the photographer Lieko Shiga participated in an artists’ residency in a town called Kitagama, roughly 50 miles away from Fukushima. As one of Japan’s most promising young photographers, Shiga is best known for her surreal and magical representation of fantastical scenes of the imaginary. Shiga was personally affected by the disaster as the house she was staying at, her studio and a year’s worth of photographic work was destroyed. Rather than succumbing to the loss of her photographic work, Shiga participated in the clean up of the town, specifically employing her knowledge on photography to save other people’s lost photographs and family albums. Her resulting project is a vast archive of personal photographs that were selflessly collected, cleaned, categorized and archived. Shiga’s approach to the disaster resulted in a community-based project that functioned as a way to contemplate the tragic losses of the disaster via found family photographs. In spite of losing her own photographic work, Shiga traversed Kitagama to help others to locate photographs of loved ones. The curator of Japanese art Lisa Sutcliffe comments on this work: ‘This public service may yet yield some new way of seeing the catastrophe, and will serve as a testament to the lives that were lost or changed irreparably.’ By collecting and representing found photographs Shiga comments on the human and the emotional dimension caused by the trauma of losing friends and family. Photography is not employed to represent the disaster, but rather, it represents an opportunity to confront the trauma it effected.
The photographer Rinko Kawauchi also travelled to the effected regions on the east coast of Japan. Her previous photographic works are characterized by astute and subtle observations of the every day. Rather than solely training her camera on the destruction caused by the tsunami, Kawauchi noticed a pair of domesticated pigeons who always returned to the same place in one coastal town. Guided by the navigational instincts, the pigeons habitually returned to the place that they new best yet that no longer existed. In as much the Tōhoku represents destruction on an unimaginable scale, Kawauchi’s photographs also signify a sense of renewal.
One of the most surreal yet also touching photographic works to have been produced in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami is Yasusuke Ota’s project The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima. A day after the tsunami damaged a nuclear reactor at Fukushima, those living within 20km of the power plant were forcibly evacuated by the government. In fear of nuclear contamination, inhabitants had to leave their personal belongings, as well as pets and farm animals behind. Two weeks after the evacuation took place, Ota volunteered to enter the ‘no go’ area to provide these animals with food and water. What Ota found were amazingly surreal scenes that could have featured in post-apocalyptic films such as I am Legend: an ostrich that escaped from a nearby farm roaming the streets of Okuma Machi, a bunch of cows apparently lost and confused on a parking lot in Tomioka Machi, and, perhaps most bizarrely, pigs trying to cool their bodies in a puddle on the streets of Namie Machi. Ota’s photographic project adds another dimension to our perception of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as the roaming animals create a surreal contrast to a place in which life, it appears in the photographs, has otherwise stood still.
In sum, the works I have discussed above point to a number of different strategies and methodologies Japanese photographers have employed to ‘capture’ the disaster. The role of photography in all these works is crucial: rather than depicting loss or destruction directly, these photographers produced deeply personal works that illuminate one particular aspect of the disaster. Faced with destruction on an unimaginable scale, their photographs help us visually and metaphorically contemplate the sense of trauma and loss, while, at the same time, amidst the rubble pockets of life begin to emerge. The photographs also refer to new opportunities and challenges that many photographers have overcome in order to represent fractured communities that are slowly but steadily rebuilding themselves.
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