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 Keizo Kitajima, a photographer who, as Japan Society curator Michael Chagnon notes, espouses elements of “the sublime in landscape and ruins,” bleeding them of color to give them a washed-out and dreamlike quality. Kitajima captured ships flipped on their side along the coastline and abandoned ghost towns whose buildings were crumpled or leveled entirely, spilling their guts into a wasteland of debris.

“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, Rinko Kawauchi, who recorded the experience in writing and images. “Against this leveled ground of rubble, the sky looked broader and more expansive than ever,” she writes. “Standing there for a while, I considered the smallness of my existence; so small that even a gust of wind could have blown me away.” Kawauchi’s heart-rending shots in the show feature two domesticated pigeons (she noted their banded legs) flying over the wreckage in search of their homes. 

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, Lieko Shiga’s images capture lives at the epicenter of the quake—in the small town of Kitakama, with a population of just 107 families and 380 people, that saw the loss of 53 people following the catastrophe. Shiga moved there in 2008 after becoming fascinated with the surrounding region’s pine groves and the community’s mystical folklore, and worked with the town’s inhabitants to create staged compositions that express some of that culture. Her manipulated photographs, which she says are only “unconsciously connected” to the specific events of 3/11, bring a mesmerizing spell of spiritual transcendence and catharsis to the trauma of mass destruction. 


—Tess Thackara


In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11” is on view at Japan Society, New York, Mar. 11–Jun. 12, 2016.