Five Years after the Fukushima Earthquake, Intimate Photographs Remember a Devastated Japan
What role can photography play in recording and reflecting on natural disasters and human-made catastrophes? Where does the boundary lie between documentation and art? How do images inform our collective memory? These are some of the questions that surface while looking at the nearly 100 photos currently on view at New York’s Japan Society, in “In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11,” which commemorates the fifth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and, along with the subsequent tsunami that reached nearly 100 feet above sea level, it killed over 18,000 people, displaced 400,000, and caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to melt down. Five years later, the cleanup of the reactors continues with no end in sight.
The disaster became among the most photographed in history. One of the numerous artists to pick up a camera and travel east was
“Photographing the ports and harbors, bays and beaches of this tsunami-ravaged coast,” Kitajima writes in the exhibition catalog, “I realized the difficulty of distinguishing between the actuality of the predicament I saw with my own eyes and the apparent reality of the profusion of images that invade our lives by way of various media every day.”
In one image, April 19, 2012, Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture, the photographer turned his lens on what appears to be a vast concrete tower, uprooted and brought crashing to its side, revealing the extraordinarily intricate fabric of wires and piping within. One thinks of the staggering cumulation of human toil and labor that nature can vanquish in an instant.
Japan’s blighted regions drew another internationally renowned photographer,
The exhibition also includes photography retrieved from the remains of people’s belongings. The Lost & Found Project has salvaged some 20,000 photographs from the rubble of 3/11, their images barely visible beneath damage from water exposure. They are poetic vestiges of lives irreparably ruptured. Elsewhere in the exhibition,
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.