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.
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).
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.