Remembrance in Keiko Sasaoka’s photographs

Keiko Sasaoka, Remembrance 3.11

The photographer Keiko Sasaoka belongs to a select group of artists who tackle the representation of landscapes effected by the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. In many of her images, such as the one above, the effects of the disaster are depicted with subtlety and quiet observation. The trauma inflicted on the land and its people is only barely visible: various pieces of debris are strewn on the fields, an electricity mast is bent over or even the bushes all leaning towards one side indicating the pressure of the black wave tearing into the land. Sasaoka’s approach stands in complete contrast to the methodology of photojournalism which generally seeks to match the scale of the atrocity with images that are eye-catching and visually arresting. A massive ship resting on top of a house became one of the most photographed subjects in the affected areas. Here, instead, Sasaoka’s chooses an approach that is one hand representational and on the other metaphorical as the scars in the landscape clearly allude to the scars inflicted on the Japanese psyche.

Keiko Sasaoka, Remembrance 3.11

Another important aspect in Sasaoka’s work is the representation of land affected by the nuclear disaster. The inclusion of electricity lines in many of her photographs clearly reference the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima as a third and perhaps most frightening dimension of the disaster as conservative estimates state that the power plant will be decommissioned for not another 40 years. These images, such as the one above, are taken near the exclusion zone set up around the nuclear power plant. Yet inasmuch the images from the coastline are depicting the effects of the tsunami, the images from the exclusion zone on the other hand focus more on the landscape in the process of changing as a result of being abandoned. Again, visually these differences might be quite subtle, yet while the former concentrates on an event that has already taken place, the latter represents an event that continues to effect the land and its people who live or indeed who no longer live in the effected area. Both visually and contextually Sasaoka’s post-apocalyptic photographs bear a striking similar to the representation of a mysterious exclusion zone in Andrei Tarkovksy’s classic film The Stalker (1979).

Andrei Tarkovksy, The Stalker (1979)

Sasaoka’s smartly references the notion of a changing landscape not only in the images that she takes, but also, in the very format these images are represented. As a member of the renown Photographers’ Gallery in Tokyo she frequently exhibits her work in the space of the gallery. However, apart from the classic exhibition format (large prints, wood frames, white cube space etc.), Sasaoka has created a series of foldout pamphlets that depict her working process as it continues to change. So far Sasaoka has created 27 pamphlets in this ongoing body of work. Not all pamphlets exclusively deal with landscapes affected by either the earthquake, tsunami or nuclear meltdown, though the title of the series ‘Remembrance’ clearly alludes to the sense of trauma that is revisited in the images and revisited in the viewer looking at the images.

I rarely consider biographical information to be important in the analysis of an artist’s work. Though in Sasaoka’s case it is important to note that her first major project ‘Park City’ from 2004 was photographed in her hometown Hiroshima. In this work, the peacefulness of Hiroshima today stands in contrast to photographs that are purposefully dark, ambiguous and difficult to comprehend. The process of overcoming a disaster, particularly a nuclear disaster, is therefore an aspect Sasaoka was already familiar with before she embarked on her series ‘Remembrance’. Here, Sasaoka obviously references a deep-running anxiety about nuclear technology that extends to all aspects of cultural, political and social dimensions in Japan. This anxiety existed before but it was further heightened after the meltdown in Fukushima.

Sasaoka’s photobook ‘Fishing’ published in 2012 equally fits into her ongoing interest in a land that is essentially fragile, vulnerable and constantly exposed to the elements. In fact, it was while she was photographing this decade-long project that the tsunami of March 2011 exposed the fragility of Japan’s coastline in the most extreme. Sasaoka’s subsequent project ‘Remembrance’ perhaps alludes to the notion that the land constitutes a living organism, or a body, that despite its inherent vulnerability is also able of healing.


This post belongs to a series of articles I am writing on the photographic representation of post-tsunami landscapes. As I am preparing a journal article on this topic, please feel free to contact me if you know of any other photographers or important references on this topic. I am currently in Japan on a Japan Foundation Fellowship in order to conduct this research project.

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5 thoughts on “Remembrance in Keiko Sasaoka’s photographs

  1. Great to hear about the project. Good luck. You also have Charlotte Cotton on your side referencing you at the APHE conference, so you will get a lot more hits soon!
    best wishes Graham

    • Hey Graham,

      Great to hear from you. Wow, Charlotte Cotton on my side. That’s an endorsement indeed. :)

      Best wishes, Marco

  2. Hi Marco, welcome back to Japan. I am curious to see how you will view the situation of post 3/11 photography while you are here.

    I think you may find that Sasaoka does not actually belong to such a “select group” after all—the list of photographers who are not photographing Tohoku might be more exclusive. As you already know, Japan is saturated with photographers, and it has been, by turns, stimulating and disheartening to see the endless stream of 3/11 projects. Regular photo-ojiisan in Asahi/Nihon Camera, all the way up to heavy hitters like Shinoyama and Kawauchi have had a go, but I think the number of excellent projects to be realized so far can still be counted on one hand: Hatakeyama and Shiga (if that’s even “3/11 photography,” one can’t be sure). I saw Sasaoka’s show today, and I thought it was worthwhile, though it will probably take some more time to before it’s fully realized.

    I’d like to nitpick with you, though, about the way you say that the power lines in her photos “clearly reference the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima,” that her use of the landscape “clearly allude[s] to the scars inflicted on the Japanese psyche,” and that the work in general “obviously references a deep-running anxiety about nuclear technology that extends to all aspects of cultural, political and social dimensions in Japan.” None of these things strike me as clear or obvious! It seems to me that you are at best projecting too much of yourself into these images, and at worst projecting things onto Japanese people that may not necessarily be true—to take up the last point, Japan certainly has a unique relationship to nuclear technology, but if nuclear anxiety were indeed so widespread, how should we explain the resounding victory of the gung-ho, pro-nuclear LDP in last year’s election? Or, indeed, the lax governmental regulations that allowed the Fukushima situation to become so severe? I am glad that you are writing about relatively unknown photographers like Sasaoka and Shitamichi; they need the exposure and feedback. You are in a valuable position, though, and so I hope that you will show a little more care in representing the situation of Japanese photography to the West.

    In any case, you may also want to look at Keizo Kitajima’s work, and in particular a project by yet another PG member, Kazutomo Tashiro. Good luck with everything.

    • Dear Dan,

      Thanks for your thorough and concise feedback. I am glad that you read my blog and that you appreciate the artists I am highlighting. Yes you are correct, the more research I am doing the list of artists working on 3.11 is growing. Yet what I have also noticed, there are also photographers who initially planned to photograph 3.11 and then realised that ethically or morally that they couldn’t do so. As mentioned in my last blog post, this questions of ethics is something I wish to return to later.

      Also thanks for alerting me to Hatakeyama and Shiga, both of whose work I am familiar with. Certainly when it comes to Hatakeyama, I think here is an artist who had to deal with the ethics of photography. As for Shiga, I too am not so sure how it relates to 3.11. Everyone that I speak to says that it does, yet I fail to see it in the actual work. If there are no visual references in the work, I find it difficult to make the connection.

      This brings me to the main point that you make. I certainly do project my own interpretation on to Sasaoka’s and other photographers work. After all, I am the one ‘reading’ the image, and as such, I am the one making a subjective interpretation. Every image produces different readings and as such my own interpretation of an image will differ from others. It is akin to what Roland Barthes and most post-structuralists (Foucault et al) proposed when they called for the ‘Death of the Author’. But I certainly take your point that this is obviously a sensitive issue which can’t be addressed with large generalizations. Your feedback in that regard is appreciated.

      Kind regards,


  3. Hi Marco, thanks for the warm reply.

    It’s true that there are a number of photographers who have chosen not to photograph Tohoku—Daido Moriyama is a big one. In this talk he explains why. I’m sorry that I didn’t note down the time at which this comes up, but I know that it’s an answer to a question from the audience. (Also, you will see the translator is not getting his tone right at all!)

    When I said that you are “at best projecting too much of yourself into these images,” I didn’t mean that in such a negative sense; naturally, that’s your right. I was more concerned with the dramatic turns of phrase, and especially with the finality that’s implied by using words like “clearly” and “obviously,” as if there was no further room for discussion. Like I said, I’m nitpicking, but I think this is important!

    In any case, I would be interested to read your impressions of Rinko Kawauchi’s 3/11 work, “Light and Shadow.”

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