Hidden Dangers: Japanese Photobooks in the Shadow of Fukushima

No stranger to the horrific health consequences caused by nuclear radiation, the Japanese people were plunged into a state of national uncertainty and fear on March 11, 2011 when a devastating earthquake and tsunami severely damaged northern Tohoku and its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As the population was reeling from reports of extreme structural damage and an escalating death toll, the Japanese government feebly attempted to control the release of information about a potential large-scale radiation leak at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. With the region slowly rebuilding more than a year and a half after the catastrophe, many in Japan and internationally are still highly suspect of the accuracy of the official government reports about how much radiation was released into the air, water and soil of the surrounding area. Numbers vary, with Japanese government scientists citing the amount as one fifth of the radioactive cesium of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster (The New York Times).

Immediately following the earthquake and tsunami, throngs of amateur and professional photographers blanketed northern Japan, transmitting shocking images via print, web and television of the physical destruction of the Tohoku region. Most of these photos were documentary in nature and focused on the overwhelming destruction that could readily be “seen”. What is less easily conveyed, and perhaps more frightening, are the long-term health effects caused by the Fukushima Nuclear meltdown and radiation leak. The hidden dangers that permeated the earth, food supply and water in the weeks following the tsunami are invisible to the naked eye and cannot be directly captured by the camera lens.

Similar to the photographic response that occurred in the period following the near-apocalyptic devastation of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, there has emerged a distinct visual sensibility among several photographers whose images avoid a traditional documentary approach as they respond to both seen and unseen destruction in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown. With the photobook as a prominent creative outlet and a barometer of societal uncertainty, contemporary photographers such as Takashi Homma, Rinko Kawauchi, and Naoya Hatakeyama address their personal unease and the larger national anxiety through the creation of deceptively simple visual narratives that allude to personal loss and the invisible threat of nuclear contamination. On first glance, their images appear to be almost poetic in nature — quiet and contemplative compositions. They unfold slowly and in direct contrast to the more sensational images broadcast by the mainstream news media. There is no unifying visual thread that connects these images; rather they are joined by the intensity of their respective voices, as they each convey a personal sense of loss.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Natural Stories (2011)
Naoya Hatakeyama, Natural Stories (2011)

As a native of Rikuzentakata in the Iwate prefecture, Naoya Hatakeyama’s response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastation is highly personal — he lost both his mother and family home on March 11, 2011. Known for images that explore the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, Hatakeyama has for a long time taken photographs that focus on both man-made and natural destruction. His images of post-311 Rikuzentakata are exceedingly beautiful and mournful. They possess an intimacy with the landscape that lifts them beyond pure documentation. Presented in a section of the current retrospective exhibition and accompanying catalogue entitled Natural Stories (2011), which was organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and now on view through November 4, 2012 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, his photographs of shattered homes, flooded roads, splintered forests, and overturned vehicles, show a world of both physical and emotional loss. Their combination of intense beauty, emotion and intimacy read like highly nuanced poems that never succumb to sentimentality. They are a testament to Hatakeyama’s ability to maintain a respectful distance as he speaks to both the universal and the personal.

Takashi Homma, Mushrooms from the Forest (2011)
Takashi Homma, Mushrooms from the Forest (2011)

Takashi Homma’s Mushrooms from the Forest 2011 (2011) initially appears to be a simple nature study book of dense forest foliage scenes interspersed with close-up specimen-like shots of mushrooms. The only hint on the book’s cover of Homma’s true goal with these images can be found in his clever use of strikethrough typography in the title. The bucolic landscapes depicted are not what they seem. As Homma writes in a short statement at the end of the book, the mushrooms and trees in the photographs were taken in the forests that surround the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shortly after the radiation leaks of 311. The Japanese government had classified the mushrooms as unsafe due to high radiation levels. Shown in an almost clinical, somewhat detached manner, Homma photographed the irradiated mushrooms portrait-like against a sterile white background – their organic origins highlighted by the bits of dirt that cling to their roots. The sequencing of this book is nicely modulated with the more minimal images of stark mushrooms acting as punctuation marks among the numerous and somewhat impenetrable images of dense foliage. The mushrooms’ distinctive features and irradiated nature become even more pronounced as they jump out from between the pages of green woodlands and quietly assault the viewer. By the end of the book, the mushrooms feel detached and dead, as if Homma is presenting them post-mortem on an autopsy table. There is a sad poetry in the quiet progression from living nature to contaminated specimen that conveys a similar sensation as the resigned emotions found in the debris strewn compositions of Hatakeyama’s Rikuzentakata. It is emotional, yet distant. We are all left numb.

Rinko Kawauchi, Light and Shadow (2012)
Rinko Kawauchi, Light and Shadow (2012)

Rinko Kawauchi is known for her subtle attention to detail and her deft photobook edits. Her images are about the unsaid within the mundane, the ordinary and the familiar as it feels both comfortable and uncomfortable. Poetry is again the word that comes to mind upon viewing her photography, but it is a poem without closure, one that illuminates an ordinariness that is somewhat sinister, otherworldly and contaminated. Similar to Hatakeyama and Homma, Kawauchi visited the Tohoku region shortly after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In Light and Shadow, the photobook that resulted from her trip (and from which she donates all sale proceeds to the disaster relief funds for northeast Japan), Kawauchi focuses her camera on a pair of black and white pigeons. For her, they symbolize light and dark, and the existence of opposites: Life and death as an “inevitable recurrence” (Kawauchi). In the waking dreams that typify Kawauchi’s photographs, the landscape is cracked and scattered with debris as the birds fly above. The focus is not on the mounds of splintered wood that cover the horizon, but on the ephemeral and transitory nature of the world it inhabits. Kawauchi’s masterful sequencing leads us through the visible terrain as it always alludes to unseen and yet undetermined contamination. With the first image of the coastline seen through branches, the book unfolds quietly as Kawauchi alternates photos of destroyed homes set below vast pale skies with simple open images of the two pigeons in flight against a minimal white sky. Debris is abstracted as the birds scavenge in its crevices; horizontal cracks intersect the median line in a road, and the sky fills with a late afternoon moon. The sky is a constant in all these photos as it changes from a pale nothingness to a darkened space filled with stars.  There is a heaviness that conveys a sense of loss and uncertainty – the potential of hidden danger looms nearby. The beauty in these images is painful and acknowledges the balance that is an inevitable part of life and death, light and dark, seen an unseen, nature and man-made. Once again we are numb. We are felled. We question whether there is hope, whether the news reports are accurate, whether the land will ever be habitable again.

There is an ominous silence that pervades the images and sequencing in all three of the photobooks discussed above. Although each mines a distinctly personal visual vocabulary, they are unified in their underlying address of the hidden and unknown that is revealed in their astute and nuanced attention to sequencing. The visual language of these books is in strong contrast to Japanese photobooks that also reshaped notions of design and photography in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. Ken Domon’s Hiroshima (1958) documents victims of Hiroshima by confronting the atrocities of a nuclear blast head-on. For him, his camera is a tool to capture an objective truth with nothing hidden. Domon, who embraced a photo-realism that rejects the subjectivity of the photographer in favor of a direct depiction of that which is in front of him, shocked the world with his images. For Kawauchi, Homma and Hatakeyama, shock is the numbness they all feel. Their photobooks quietly unnerve the viewer with images that initially seem innocuous, yet are clearly not. Through their deft use of design and sequencing these images are like the mutant butterflies that began appearing in the northern Tohoku region about a year and a half after the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. At first glance they seem ordinary, but upon closer inspection their dented eyes and stunted wings become apparent. They are familiar, but otherworldly; just like Homma’s mushrooms, Kawauchi’s bird in flight, and Hatakeyama’s landscape. Something is just not quite right.

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Books Mentioned:

Naoya Hatakeyama, Natural Stories (Tokyo: The Sankei Shimbun, 2011).
TR140 .H38 2011

Takashi Homma, Mushrooms from the Forest 2011 (Tokyo: Blind Gallery, 2011).

Rinko Kawauchi, Light and Shadow (Tokyo: Rinko Kawauchi Office and Yamada Photo Process, Inc., 2012).

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