Representing the Disaster through Symbols and Metaphors

In my last blog post I analyzed the photographs of Keiko Sasaoka who continues to photograph those areas affected by Japan’s triple disaster of March 2011. As part of my ongoing research on the photographic representation of post-tsunami landscapes – or the photographic representation of 3.11 in short – I want to look at artists whose work deals with the representation of the disaster more indirectly. By doing so, I hope to discover the various methods that artists use to make work about 3.11 whether this is metaphorically, symbolically or by mere suggestion. One of these artists is the photographer Takashi Homma who is better known for his work as editorial photographer and whose photobooks on suburban landscapes and youth culture have become highly valued collector items in Japan. Six months after the tsunami struck Japan, Homma embarked on a photographic project that stands however in complete contrast to his body of work as a whole. In his self-explanatorily titled photobook ‘Mushrooms from the Forest’, Homma has photographed mushrooms picked near that Fukushima power plant.

The project was inspired by strong warnings from the government not to collect or consume mushrooms from the exclusion zone as fungi not only attract but actually also feed off nuclear radiation. Armed with a Geiger counter, Homma set up a mobile photographic studio in the woods to photograph those mushrooms that emitted the strongest radiation. Apart from various photographs in which the mushrooms are photographed in situ, these ‘studio’ photographs of mushrooms form a typology of quasi-nuclear waste.

The organic shape, the slight colouration and the apparent beauty of this dainty natural object (much loved in Japanese cuisine as well as popular culture) evokes a strong binary to the ugliness of 3.11. As a photographic typology, the work clearly evokes Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs about industrial architecture in decay. Yet by focussing on largely decommissioned water towers, coke ovens, oil refineries or blast furnaces, Bechers’ life-long project perhaps alludes more to an industrial past or a type of industrial ideal that once existed in people’s minds. Homma’s typology, on the other hand, references the present. It shows that Japan’s man-made disaster is affecting and will continue to affect living organisms for many decades to come.

In the direct aftermath of 3.11, wide-spread confusion was caused by misleading reports in local as well as international media. This confusion was aggravated by the confused interventions of the Japanese government and the professional negligence of the power plant provider TEPCO. In the context of a general sense of helplessness, the artist Motoyuki Shitamichi packed his bags, purchased a small motorcycle and embarked on a journey that began on the 16th of March and which ended nearly five months later. Shitamichi, too, went to the areas most directly affected by the tsunami. Yet in his description of his journey it is clear that he specifically chose not to produce a direct artistic response to the tsunami or any overt criticism about nuclear power. Instead, Shitamichi ended up photographing small make-shift bridges made of wood, metal, stone or cement blocks. Similar to Homma’s typological representation of mushrooms, Shitamichi produced a typology of bridges he came across on a 1200 kilometres journey across Japan.

In the context of Shitamichi’s motorcycle journey, the bridge has a number of important connotations. In the first instance, the bridge self-referentially alludes to his own activity as an intrepid traveller. Just as a pedestrian would balance on the make-shift bridge, Shitamichi balances his cheap motorcyle as he goes from place A to B. Yet in the context of the aftermath of the tsunami, the bridge alludes to something all together more philosophical. The bridge is essentially a symbol of connectivity which strongly alludes to a general desire to reach out to those affected by the disaster. This reaching out includes the amazing stories of individuals donating huge sums of money to the affected regions. It includes stories of men and women volunteering and even putting their life in danger to help on the ground. In this context, the bridge is more than just a symbol of connectivity as it becomes a symbol of hope. It signifies a future.

Scientists will study the physical, biological and ecological dimensions of the disaster. Economists will study the socio-economic impact. Media analysts will perhaps study the way the disaster was covered by local and international news. Yet in this context I believe the artist, too, has a crucial role to play. Rather than simply documenting or representing the disaster and its aftermath, the artist allows us to articulate and maybe even better understand the social and cultural ramifications of the disaster through the artwork. In that sense, the artwork itself becomes a bridge between the viewer and the artwork’s subject. It is quite clear that both Homma and Shitamichi sought to do so by not addressing the disaster directly. This was likely also an ethical decision (a subject I wish to return to in a future blog posts). Rather, by addressing 3.11 through metaphors and symbols, Shitamichi’s work in particular promotes an engagement with the disaster that moves beyond it’s horrific impact towards a strategy of how to perhaps even overcome it.


I am indebted to Mizuki Takahashi from the Contemporary Art Center in Mito who alerted me to the works discussed in this post.

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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2 thoughts on “Representing the Disaster through Symbols and Metaphors

  1. Marco-

    Hope you are well. I find the bridge photos and what you say about them really fascinating. Interestingly,when I did my thesis-I studied the history of Japanese Noh theatre.|The most significant structural/symbolic aspect of the staging was the means of entrance for the actors to engage with the audience and tell their tales. It was always by a small bridge…..

    • Hey Jeppo,

      Oh cool, thanks for that reference. That is very helpful indeed. I am still thinking about the bridge myself. In a sense the artwork too becomes a bridge to the subject. This is also significant. I think there is more work to be done on this article which is great. It will all feed into the final article.

      Greetings from Tokyo,


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