The needle glided up the dial of the Geiger counter as we motored further into the nuclear disaster zone. My heart was palpating in time with the Geiger counter’s increasingly rapid clicking. This was the hot area of Fukushima, and only those with a special pass were allowed in. At this moment I didn’t feel very ‘special’; more like damned.
I was on assignment photographing the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Japanese tsunami and catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The aid workers from CARITAS who were looking after me had managed to procure a pass into the nuclear hot area. The clicking of the Geiger counter and the rising needle were making me very nervous indeed.
We stopped the car so I could get a sense of the place and see what I wanted to photograph. It was empty and eerie, totally destroyed except for several shattered buildings gleaming in the late afternoon sun. My concern about this assignment had always been: how do you photograph something that happened a long time ago? The damage from the tsunami was obvious; nearly everything had been swept away and smashed. So I photographed the emptiness.
We drove along what were once streets in a thriving village. On the side of a road we came across a pile of television sets. A black ribbon stretched between the footpath and the televisions, indicating we shouldn’t go any closer. They were irradiated as a result of the nuclear disaster.
Next to a wrecked building there was a pile of white goods, fridges and freezers, all now radioactive. The abandoned electrical goods and the TVs, with the sun flashing from their screens made revealing photographs of the tragedy; these objects, like the lives of their now evacuated owners, suspended in limbo.
In documentary photography you must be prepared to accept whatever the circumstances, location and environment fling your way. Photographer, Jack Picone, once photographed a purple substance as it oozed out of a Russian submarine that had been involved in a nuclear disaster. He assures me he doesn’t glow in the dark but who knows what the long-term effect will be.
For days, as we drove through the affected areas, we were continually confronted with bags, black plastic bags everywhere. Thousands and thousands of bags that contained irradiated leaves, debris and soil scooped up from the surrounds. Before the disaster this was a popular tourist area, people would visit and enjoy the scenery of hills and forests, sometimes getting a glimpse of a wild animal. On a hillside I saw a Japanese farmhouse nestling in the trees and surrounded by irradiated black bags. I waited in the subzero temperature with lightly falling snow drifting across the fields. Using a slow shutter speed I attempted to capture the mist and snowflakes descending on the black bags of poisoned earth.
I wanted to photograph the people, those that stayed and the others who returned after fleeing from the disaster. After the tsunami knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 160,000 fled from their homes and 8,000 died. A further 11,000 people died along other areas of the coast where the tsunami had struck. Now many families are coping with depression, suicide and the fear of possibly contracting cancer.
Yuko Hirohata, a survivor, decided to grow vegetables on a village plot but people wouldn’t buy them because the area was believed contaminated by radiation. So Yuko thought she would try something else and moved on to growing flowers. She said, ‘I want to make beautiful flowers blossom again in a city which has lost its colour”. Yuko waved her arms in a gesture of determination and tenacity as I photographed her shadow stretching across the deserted street. Less than twenty-seven percent of villagers have returned to this area.
Katsuaki Shiga was a fisherman until he lost everything in the tsunami. He never wanted the Fukushima Daiichi power station built and protested against it for decades. He protested so forcefully that other fisherman threatened to kill him if he didn’t keep quiet. I talked with Mr Shiga in the midday sun, normally not a good time to shoot outdoor portraits. But on this occasion I felt that the direct overhead sunlight defined his strong facial features. Shadows created by the frames of the glasses emphasize his dark, unreadable eyes.
A photographer must grasp the moment. With a twist of the head or a blink of an eye your subject is momentarily in the right space. German critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing said, “….it shows the pregnant moment of the story, where the past, present and future of the story can be read, summed up, at a glance.”
Sometimes when trying to convey the magnitude of an event we overlook the small, individual, component parts: the ordinary people, those who suffer silently and are unseen.
Tsugiyoshi Yamamoto had been a farmer and part time taxi driver. He and his wife Fumiko lost everything when the tsunami struck. Patiently and quietly they set about rebuilding their lives and had recently moved into a house close to where they had once grown vegetables. We sat at a low table drinking tea while Mr & Mrs Yamamoto recounted their experience of the disaster. The late afternoon sun was blazing through the window as Mr Yamamoto clasped his hands to ponder a question. This was the moment to shoot the picture. The positioning of the hands with the light hitting them broke up the darkness of the jacket and balanced the graphically composed image.
Further north along the coast from the Fukushima region, Hiroyuki Abe, with the help of local labour and CARITAS volunteers, was rebuilding his farm. Farm life starts before dawn and even though we arrived early in the morning their work was well underway. This worked in my favour because people were so busy I could walk around taking pictures relatively unheeded.
In my picture series I wanted to try and tell the story from disaster to emerging regeneration. I had shot destruction and devastation; people getting on with their lives and others who were still picking up the pieces. I photographed a Japanese cowboy who was protecting his contaminated cows from a government that wanted to kill them. There are pictures of volunteers and workers who came from across Japan to help clean up this dangerous and dirty region. The final pictures in the series show the nascent regrowth and rejuvenation following on from this disaster.
A documentary series has a storyline, an opening image, connecting pictures and a concluding image. People often ask, when does a story finish? I think Eugene Richards gave a good answer.
“Most stories close because they’re just too fucking draining after a while. You just wake up in the morning and you say, I don’t want to go back to that nursing home. I don’t want to go back and see that person. Or I can’t go back to the crack houses in Red Hook, and that was it”.
While driving through the nuclear affected area the needle on the Geiger counter hit a point that really unnerved me. “Isn’t this dangerous?” I said to my guide. “Don’t worry”, she replied. “We’re both old and it doesn’t matter”.