When the tsunami of March 11th 2011 hit Rikuzen-Takata it obliterated the town. The tsunami reached over 13 metres in height destroying 80% of all the buildings in the town. Rikuen-Takata effectively ceased to exist. Indeed the emptiness of the landscape that had once been a bustling town of 23,000 people was something that affected me deeply on my own visit there last year while working as a photographer covering the disaster for an English newspaper.
Of course the Tohoku people are strong: they struggle on whatever the odds. From the detritus of destruction that covered the valley floor people picked out belongings and salvaged the remains of a life swept away. Many things were smashed and broken beyond usefulness though. Yet even this trash, the broken bits of plastic appears to have been salvaged and turned into something useful with the keyring pictured above.
Called the Re:Key Holder it is handmade by people from Rikuzen-Takata and other areas in Tohoku and is (according to the packaging) to be carried as a symbol of hope and good luck. Some might think it macabre but I think it is a great idea. It raises much needed cash for the victims of the tsunami as they try to rebuild their lives; it recycles the rubbish caused by the destruction of the town thus avoiding having all of it dumped in landfills. Most importantly though, as I made clear to my sons when I handed each of them a keyring, this is not just trash plastic, these are pieces of people’s lives. I have no idea where the pieces in each keyring come from: they could be part of a traffic-cone or shop display; but they could just as easily be part of some child’s favourite toy. It is hard not to forget that possibility when you reach for your keys every day and look at the scratched and bent coloured plastic hanging from them. Then again the loss the people of Rikuzen-Takata suffered is not something we should ever forget.
It’s a small investment in the long recovery of the Tohoku coast, so cheap easy to do and yet making such a difference to the people there. I would like everyone who visits this site to buy one or two please.
…anything I’d experienced before. And far beyond the estimated inundation area warning on the road sign in the village of Otsuchi above
In the news a lot this week but always in our minds.
2011 was a year to remember. Am editing my archive now to put together a selection of some of the best images I took this year, as I try to do every year. Of course 2011 was one of the busiest news years anyone can remember. Though I was not involved in recording the over-throws of dictators in the Arab Spring or the killing of Osama bin Laden or any of the other big news stories that happened this year. Here in Japan we had the March 11th earthquake and tsunami plus the nuclear crisis in Fukushima that resulted from them, to deal with. It was a busy year and one that is forever etched in my memory. Choosing a few meaningful photos from the thousands I took related to this event alone is difficult.
But I like the one above and thought I’d share it with you. It shows Daily Mirror Journalist, Tom Parry, interviewing tsunami survivors in Otsuchi in Iwate. To me the images sums up the situation working up there. Surrounded by devastation the like of which I had never seen before, I found the locals’ needs to share their stories something useful I could encourage and translate (inexpertly it has to be said due to dialect) to allow Tom to do his job. I know it sounds strange given the place and what we listened to but I liked working up there with this journalist who is smart and sensitive and a good person to share such an intense experience with. I hope I get to work with him again some day. But this image does remind me of the unreal, workaday reality of news-gathering in the disaster zone and is one of my favourite images from the year.
Please read back through the posts I wrote at the time for more of my feelings about what happened in Japan this Spring.
Bit late to this as I’ve been too busy to check my friends’ sites for a while but have just seen that Rob Gilhooly has put up some night images of the Tsunami zone on his site.
A very original ideas for a different take on the experience up there from a photographer who has spent a long time bringing back powerful images from the destruction. The raison d’être for this series is so simple though: he couldn’t sleep. Yet it was not an easy thing to go out in the dark and do this; I know exactly what he’s talking about when he describes the utter emptiness and scary silence of walking around in those ravaged places after the light had gone. I did it a couple of times and it was terrifying.
Way too many ghosts
The image above is of those near night images I took on the borders of the exclusion Zone in Minami Soma in Fukushima .
But have a look at Rob’s work it is beautiful and so so sad.
When the tsunami and earthquake struck the Tohoku coast on March 11th many people lost their lives and loved ones. Many that survived lost their homes and with them the memories of the lives they had lived and the people that didn’t survive. Like the wedding photo in the image above, these mementoes to that time are irreplaceable and their loss must be incredibly painful. Nothing is quite as sad as seeing these orphaned mementoes lying in the mud. The tsunami carried houses and belongs far from the places they were once cherished. There have been attempts to reunite people with these reminders of their lives before that day, but for most the Spring rains and Summer’s bleaching sun have erased those faces and happier times forever.
The people of Tohoku are strong, indeed they have been able to carry on despite destruction and loss that would defeat most but it is hard for them to start building lives again that have no foundation in the memories they have lost. Just as the images fade and run in the unclaimed photos, the faces of the lost must also be fading in the minds of those left behind; which makes any memories they make know, any photos that show those they still can love, doubly intense, important and precious.
Which is where the photographer Brian Scott Peterson comes in. Setting up Photohoku a short time ago he is regularly travelling north to give gifts of cameras and photo albums to the people trying to make new lives there. He also take his own photos of the people that survived and donates the prints so that they have the beginning of a new set of memories to carry with them into an uncertain future.
He is not exactly giving them their memories back, that is hard to do, but he is giving them some new ones and a place where they can keep them to see this time of stress, sadness and stoicism from a future that is hopefully easier and less raw than now. You might ask why they would want to record this time in their lives but it seems obvious to me. As time advances the tragedy of March 11th will fade and with it the forgetting of the events and the people that filled that time before. While looking back at their time in a refugee centre or temporary shelter may seem masochistic or taking pictures of the remains of your house may seem morbid and unhelpful to us, each of these harsher memories must have attached to it the gentler reminders of a person who was lost; even a bad memory keeps alive a good one. They will also be able to remember the troubles shared and the emotions that sprung from this time as they become unexplainable to others, and though overwhelming on occasion, these emotions will be keenly felt in the sense of togetherness that was important at that moment even as the children grow and leave home and the old people die and disappear.
Anyway it’s a good project with a generous and talented leader. A worthy cause worth supporting if you have any old cameras or can do something like webdesign, or sort out the paperwork hassles of setting up a charitable foundation within the labyrinth Japanese legal system.
Here’s the Photohoku web address again. http://photohoku.org/
More to follow.
Lots to do as have some biggish stories from here but back in Tokyo, time gets eaten-up quickly.
Most importantly today: my eldest son’s football match.
Koinobori, carp flags flying over Kitahara yesterday. Today is Tango no Sekku or children’s day in Japan when the young ones are celebrated, particularly the boys and these flags are meant to symbolize the hope that they grow up strong. These icon streamers are what drew us to the town, sad to think that many children in the town died in the tsunami of March 11th.
Good to see that some people make the effort to honour and remember them.
Another earthquake hits as I write this.
The power of the Tsunami made clear in Shimo Masuda near Sendai Airport. The wave must have been ten metres high to breach the sea wall the man above is standing on. It went on to rip the concrete walkway off the top; destroying these steps along the way. It then carried large parts of the walkway and the heavy sea defense blocks inland nearly a 100 metres. The destruction of this once pretty town goes on for kilometres back from the beach though. The airport however is apparently operating again which is amazing when you consider what it looked like after the tsunami. Harrowing place, so empty, quiet and lonely. The birds singing in the combed-flat pine trees made it clear this was once a nice place to live. This fact is disturbingly clear when you zoom all the way into street view with Google maps, the aerial shots are post-tsunami but the street view is from before and makes for a sad little digital wander.
On the ground, picking your way across the ruins and sand with the sea crashing and sucking at the damaged shore the place now scared me. I am wary of the ocean, especially along this coast, indeed the seaside will never quite feel the same probably.
Exhausted from driving around. will write more soon.
Back here for a few days, more when I can.
The funny thing about this earthquake and tsunami is that it is turning out to be both the best and the worst of times for me. The worst needs no explaining; I really wish it had never happened. The best part does need some context however.
Being in Iwate certainly was not good, it was a hard and deeply upsetting experience and I bent the ears of good friends on my first night there just to throw-off the feelings of voyeurism I had. Being a photographer does allow me to go to places and meet people that would not be possible without a camera to invite me there and though it is not always comfortable; and even it is not always right to be there, I want to do it because I believe it can be a positive thing if I done properly. I am very proud to have met the amazing people of Iwate and it has forever changed my perceptions and opinions on the Japanese. That is what I hope to show with my images: I hope that a picture I take in a businesslike way says something more than business about the subject in it.
But I am a photographer and as such, though the subject of the tsunami is not one to take pride or profit in easily, this event has proved surprisingly good on both for me this month. The images above is the front cover of Eurobiz magazine, a fact of which I am happy, and not a little proud yet even though this image and the others images of the tsunami they used in the magazine, along with the fantastic work by Rob Gilhooly, do tell people something of the situation up there, the feelings I have from my time in the north are stronger still. It is shockingly bad there, unbelievable in a way that few photographers can ever interpret with anything resembling poignancy as my good friend Gianni Giosue has done here.
The image above for example was taken during a paying job; a parachute job, and though I like it and think it is a good enough shot it does not have the right emotions for me that this tragic event deserves; the emotions which are all to easy to lose when photographing for work.
So I really want to go back to give myself a chance to look with a more gentle eye on the stories there and tell you about them. I wonder if that is right thing to do however.
The pictures above are of the Fukushima Aquarium when I visited a few years ago. Happy memories indeed, an amazing place that is all an aquarium should be: stunning and natural, educational and fun. I am more than a little sad to hear it has been badly damaged in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th.
Apparently many of the larger animals, like sea lions and seals were able to be saved, some having been moved to other zoos and aquariums in other regions of Japan but many of the others animals and fish died. The Aquarium also sits close to the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station that is still leaking radioactivity. This will, of course, only add to it woes.
It may seem churlish to worry about animals when so many people have lost their lives and livelihoods in the events of the last few weeks. Yet somehow the deaths of such animals seem even more pointedly sad because they did not ask to be there, they were captured, they performed, they were trapped and when the tsunami hit they could not get away without the help of the people who had put them in such a position in the first place. It is even more ironic in an aquarium than in a zoo that if such animals had been in their natural environment they would have been pretty safe, yet in the protective glass walls of such places the sea could easily and uncaringly kill them.
I love aquariums and zoo as I’ve said before, I love animals and the chance to see them up close is always exciting and such places make that possible. I can’t swim and I would never be able to experience the beauty of a shark or manta-ray swimming or a cloud of silvery fish turning as one and shimmering like a dream were it not for such places. I like only the good zoos though, I do not want to have the animal displayed, I want to look for it and see it doing something natural (even if that is hiding); I do not like it to perform and think that the sea lion shows and whale and dolphin enclosures are cruel and anachronistic in our supposedly more enlighten age.
Fukushima Aquarium had those yes, yet it also had huge tanks of dizzying dimensions where fish could swim almost free. I also loved that it was close to the sea. The outside image above was of the aquarium’s garden that faced the ocean giving you the chance to gaze out at the surface of the world you had just looked at from beneath while inside. It was an inspired idea, connecting the unreality of the visit to that other, wetter realm the aquarium could provide with the reality of the ocean and it true immensity and mystery. Unfortunately when the tsunami hit it was that proximity that destroyed it.
I’m not sure if that is some kind of poetic justice for such places. It could be seen as such all too easily but then again Fukushima Aquarium was one of the good zoos: it cared, it showed us why we should respect the sea and it tried to educate us about it. Perhaps many visitors on their way to the dolphin shows and performing seals forgot that part of the experience in the heady, irreverent pleasures of these risible acts. March 11th was the day the ocean took it dignity back from such things yet it still upsets me that so many animals that didn’t want to be there had to die in the process.
List of zoos and aquariums damaged and affected by the earthquake and tsunami with details of how people can help with Jaza here.
Rikuzentakata is a place that was very unlucky. I wonder indeed if this place will even exist in the future.
Founded in January 1st 1955 it is hardly a town with a deep history and long, worthy heritage, yet that doesn’t matter, it was home to around 24,000 people most of whom probably thought they were safe behind its formidable tsunami defences. Over 10,000 of those people are still unaccounted for after the tsunami hit on March 11th, overwhelming the tsunami barrier easily and obliterating it way up the valley of Rikuzentakata.
It was the last place I visited on a day of debris and misery when I was working up there. It was the emptiest, most silent and saddest town the journalist and I went to. We met almost no one there, indeed to try to interview people there would have been beyond insensitive. Stories in other places were upsetting and horrific and yet people seemed to want to talk, to spread the stress, to let out the fear but the stillness and emptiness of Rikuzentakata was palpably disturbing. People didn’t need words there to tell the story of their town.
The arbitrary luck of nature is a humbling thing and hard to deal with after so much pain. In other towns people were amazing at just getting on with it. But here almost no one moved and even the few houses that survived seemed abandoned. At the top of the valley is a house I remember particularly because in any other situation it would have looked like a nice place to live. It sat at the back of a small but open and pleasant garden which faced the sea. Its large view windows took in the vistas of this once picturesque valley and a spotless lawn of yellowing grass spoke of summer times relaxing in the coastal breezes, pottering about the flowerbeds or perhaps enjoying an alfresco beer on a star shot night of stillness and calm. The house was completely unscathed, perfectly the same as it must have been on March 10th: it was untouched yet the destruction finished at the garden fence where a splintered tide mark was piled-up against the wall wire strands of a boundary more decorative than excluding.
What must it have been like to stand in your large windowed kitchen or in your back garden just inside that small, neighbourly fence and watch everything you know get swept away in front of you. I can’t imagine such horror, such memories, such good and bad luck all happening at once that you cannot know which applies to you anymore. The owner of that house was lucky that is for sure, everything, literally everything below his garden is gone. And yet when he looks at what he survived to continue living amongst it is not so easy to see the fortune. Friends, neighbours, family perhaps and everything that makes a life livable has been swallowed by the ocean.
The house was empty: its curtains covering windows that reflected the grey sky and roses in the garden. It was, as I said a nice place to call a home and yet I cannot see how those that were lucky that day will be able to continue living there in their few remaining houses in a town that has so many other ghosts.
Moving collection of images at Life magazine of things left behind in the Japanese tsunami.
I didn’t take many images of these items like the one above. I should have of course but somehow it felt voyeuristic. Houses were upturned, ripped opened and even upside down in many of the towns and villages we visited and I could easily find among them the remains of people’s lives now abandoned or lost. But these scraps of life stuck in the mud, washed far from their owners, seems even sadder than the broken windows of mud filled rooms I peered inside. Of course children’s toys pull at heartstrings and this image is more than a cliche, but my sons love such heroes and it is one I had to take. I saw no ultraman toys and think it would have made me cry if I had. I did see telephones, the name and number written there on the dial, I saw a toy kangaroo, the same as one my eldest son has, and that made me pause a while. I saw photos, purses, letters and books. I saw ornaments, mementoes of happier times in Hawaii or elsewhere just as the Life gallery above shows.
The most powerful thing I saw however was some pornography, imported and unpixalated, blond-haired centre-spreads now mud soaked and useless. It was funny almost but such remnants bring to life the people who will haunt these places for a long time yet. Even as survivors picked through the mud to salvage any thing from their time before the tsunami hit it struck me that this magazine was someone’s hidden treasure; a young man perhaps whose secret is still safe, his anonymity preserved in the detritus of the valley where is magazine sits now with the pictures running and the paper decaying. The sign of a life full of hormones and hopes. Where he lived I don’t know. If he still lives, I don’t know.
Friends reunited for the first time since the Tsunami of March 11th
Image take in Ofunato on March 17th.
A long time to be without a good friend.
It may have escaped your notice that there has been a tsunami in Japan. To date it is known to have killed 6,911 people ; 10,692 are registered as still missing; 2,611 are injured and around 400,000 people have been forced from their damaged homes or had their houses disappear completely.
There is pain, real pain along the north east coast and yet, at the moment, all the attention is focused on the Tokyo Electric Company’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant where a cooling system failure, caused by the quake and exacerbated by the tsunami, has caused a week long series of fires, over heatings and explosions.
Of course the fear of radiation leaks is real: the reactor is exposed and over-heating, and problems such as explosions at these kind of places should not ever be taken lightly which the Government of Japan and the power generation companies there have sometimes been accused of doing when they are not covering up accidents completely. And yet the reporting of the nuclear contamination problems of Fukushima and the perceived threat they pose to Tokyo has been excessive to say the least. The Japanese government has even taken the foreign media to task about its sensationalist reporting, fearing that the constant barrage of rumour, hear-say and misinformation is stopping real efforts to inform people of any real dangers. More seriously too it is drawing the focus away from the people who have lost everything in a real, measurable and overwhelming tragedy on the tsunami coast.
When governments around the world spend millions evacuating their citizens from places that are considered, by expert accounts, not especially dangerous just to appease a bullying press or take part in some form of compassionate “keeping up with the Joneses”, this is money that could have been spent helping rescue, rebuilding and returning those areas of Japan that the events of March 11th unequivocally did affect.
Makes me angry.
Makes Daniel Kahl angry too.
Just got back from the coast in Iwate that was hit by the tsunami on March 11th. A truly humbling experience in many senses. As I mentioned in the previous post, the sheer stubbornness of the people there to carry on struggling to build hope upon the life many have had entirely washed away is amazing. Not least among the heroic people we met was the woman above whose name is Itoko Kanagawa.
Originally from Hiroshima, where she survived the atomic bombing, she was welcoming of our intrusive questions and requests for pictures. Perhaps it helped to share the shock around a bit to lessen it maybe; to make it possible for her to move on past the destruction she so lightly trotted through with a purpose to her step that belied her 80 years of age and the unknowable destination of all that energy in the ruins of the town below. LIke before perhaps, after the atomic bombing of her youth, she was already striding towards the next stage of her more than eventful life.
When I got there many western journalists had already left the area and she seemed surprised to see us. She spoke a lot of the day the earthquake hit and she spoke at a speed and in a dialect that I was barely able to keep up with about her escape: how she drove up into the hills behind the town of Ofunato as the tsunami leveled all below her; after first risking her own life to pick up her husband from the harbour. She was a good driver she said and she smiled as she said it, laughed even at the one small victory in her life that day. She was amazing, she has nothing left of her 80 years, all mementoes to the time before are gone and yet she is already thinking of the future. As I took her picture she worried that she had no make up on but then it seemed to strike her that she had no make up anywhere anymore. But she smiled as she proudly faced the camera and her honest and indefatigable spirit at that moment made me think she was beautiful enough already.
Perhaps so did she.
Here’s the article in the Daily Mirror about Kanagawa San with another of my pics of this wonderful lady.
Today I feel less scared about the earthquakes and nuclear meltdown happening in Fukushima. Though I am of course wary of radiation. I am less worried about the effects on Tokyo though and the hellish sense of foreboding we have lived under for the last week. Because today I went to places that have real problems, ones the media would hype if they needed to of course, but I have seen today things that put all our fears in perspective;, things that have shown me the supreme power of nature and also the no less worthy strength of the human spirit. No hype is needed in Iwate where hell exists unshielded and visceral. And yet even as I wipe the mud from my shoes, for the first time in a week I am not scared, I am not looking for a way out and I am not worrying about gossip.
There are problems in the world, this part of the world especially. The ground ignores us and we do not respect it anyways. Japan‘s days are numbered that is for sure, but that number is in the billions if you ask me and I need not worry too much. I have love and memories. I have almost all I need which the people of Otsuchi, Kamaishi, Kamiarakawa, Ofunato and Rikuzentakata in Iwate where I went today do not. They used to have things but the tsunami of March 11th took it all away. ALL
I am drained from work and what I saw today, I will write more when I have time to think my thoughts more clearly. But I am no longer scared, that is the over-riding result of today and I just want to share it. Today I saw people who had lost everything smile and welcome us, even as we intruded on their lives with our questions and lenses; I saw people pick their way through wreckage that would have defeated me with it melancholy and just get on with the job of living anew.
For example I met an 80 year old woman today, who survived Hiroshima, who smiled a “hello” to us as she walked through the rubble of Kamaishi; and a man who had lost his wife and mother searching his car, that rested at 45 degrees against the remains of a house, for insurance documents and other personal effects then shutting the door carefully as he left as though it was still parked on the road outside his now non-existent house. It was a day of snow and mud, of boats in rice fields and houses in the sea. It was a day of stoicism and carnage and yet it was also a day that I am proud to have lived among such people that do not blame, do not hate, do not give up and do not stop being all that is best in this damaged world of ours.
More pics when the client has used them and I am more free. Until then…
The earthquake in Japan on March 11th is looking to be one of the worst in japanese history. By some reports it is the 5th strongest earthquake to hit the earth since 1900.
Anyway you look at it, it is pretty bad here at the moment. Not in Tokyo which is slowly coming back to normal despite what appears to be a regular series of after shocks and a threatening nuclear disaster in Fukushima just a couple of hundred kilometres upwind of us. One friend here commented last night that it was hardly worth getting out from under the table and indeed the streets are eerily quiet as people seem to be spending time with family and stocking up on emergency supplies.
Because there is a distinct difference to that normality these days: people may be out, it’s a Sunday of kids in the park and shopping but it is hard to ignore the news and reports coming from the north, the effects of the Tsunami killing perhaps tens of thousands of people and the knowledge that this very country, Japan, has moved 2.4 metres due to the severity of the earthquake.
There is a palpable feeling of foreboding. It feels like we are in an unlucky time and though no-one will outwardly admit it we are all waiting for the big one to hit Tokyo. I hope it doesn’t and the release of pressure that comes from one big earthquake would ordinarily preclude another big one arriving soon after. The problem is that Tokyo sits on a different fault(s) than the one that caused this quake and we cannot know yet the stress that existed there, or have been added to or reduced by the earthquake on Friday.
Wish the details of this disaster in this picture, that I took in a hotel lobby on Friday night, were still true.
Another earthquake hits as I write this.
Old news of course to some of you, and probably unsurprising to those that know the Ring of Fire well but just found out that the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia have been hit by a Tsunami. I didn’t realize it was these small, almost unknown islands off the west coast of Sumatra, that had been hit and now I feel quite shocked
I visited the Mentawai group (on the northern-most Siberut island) just over ten years ago to spend time with the facinating Mentawai people and photograph them. I loved my time there, the forest and the people who scrape a living from it are amazing and endangered by Indonesia’s policies of religious intolerance and rapacious palm oil plantation development. For some of the saddest images of ruined tropical forests you’ll ever see look at this Greenpeace short film on plantation expansion in Sumatra, shot by Jeremy Sutton Hibbert.
Siberut island, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and emerged relatively unscathed from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. It unfortunately appears they were not so lucky this time. I was shown immense kindness and generosity in the short time I was there and really hope the people I met; like this boy above smoking in his Uma (traditional stilted home) are okay. The reports (and here) mostly speak of the southern islands of Pagai, not that this makes it any better of course as a lot of people have lost their lives, but with no really big towns or serious infrastructure on Siberut to talk about it will probably be very difficult to get information on the well being of places and thus the people I care about.
Due to the massive earthquake in Chile most of Japan was on Tsunami alert today. The large wave was meant to hit at around 1pm and promised to reach over 3 metres in height in some places. So of course like a sensible person I made sure I was on high ground well away from the sea went to Enoshima on the coast to take pictures of the thing.
The earlier rain gave way to a beautiful sunny afternoon, a lovely day at at the seaside where I managed to charm my way into standing with the firemen who were keeping watch where basically I wasn’t allowed to be: along the seawall they considered dangerous. Good for pictures not that there was much to shoot other than the afore mentioned firemen keeping a watch with binoculars.
One O’clock came and the talk was of 1:30, then 2:00 then possibly 3:00 and eventually 3:30. Natural disasters are so unpredictable! In the end it didn’t hit Enoshima which is both a good thing and slightly annoying. Of course we could have just missed it as it was too small to notice some other places were affected quite dramatically however.