Incredible images capture surreal disaster zone

American Toby Marshall says 'I can't tell you how many times I cried behind the camera'

by Barbara Bayer

Special To The Japan Times

Twisted wreckage thrown against the pastoral countryside, surreal scenes of the elements of everyday horribly juxtaposed, a world exploded yet eerily calm in its chaos. The photos are at once deeply disturbing and uncomfortably captivating. Rich colors, uncanny detail and stunning skies brought out by high dynamic range imaging techniques draw the eye in ever further. These are the work of American Toby Marshall, some 24 photos that created a stir while on display recently at the OAG House (German Culture Center) in Tokyo.

Marshall, a cameraman and video editor in Tokyo with the German television network ZDF for the past 17 years, shot the scenes during his team’s innumerable forays into the Tohoku disaster zone following the Great East Japan Earthquake. The photos only found their way out of Marshall’s computer and into the public eye at the urging of a colleague, who saw them and said: “Toby, these are really strong. You should do something with these.”

The 60-year-old Marshall, who considers himself foremost a photographer, recognizes how “privileged” he was to have been able to experience at painful proximity the aftermath of disaster. “Everywhere I looked there was something that hit me inside . . . and I can’t tell you how many times I cried behind the camera trying to hide my eyes. I couldn’t even see anymore.” But he could see something “quieter, almost like a meditation, like, ‘Here it is, what does it mean to you?’ ” It was, among others, the “feeling of paradox” Marshall hoped to convey to others. “These pictures are only asking for a look and an openness . . . an awareness of the depth of the powers of the world in which we live in.” The photos are next headed to Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, where they will be displayed in the local municipal office. With luck, they will go worldwide.

Marshall, who was born in Ohio, grew up in Los Angeles. Realizing early that to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a doctor was not for him, he studied drama and graduated with a theater arts degree. After getting involved in experimental theater, Marshall found himself based in Rome and touring Europe with Living Theatre for five years.

His path took him next to Pune, where he spent a year at the ashram of the Indian mystic and guru then known as Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh. Marshall spent four more years at the guru’s ill-fated Oregon commune, where, oddly enough, he first learned the art of video.

“When that all fell apart,” Marshall says, he moved to Japan on the suggestion of both a musician friend and his Japanese girlfriend, now wife. It being the early ’80s, heady with opportunity, Marshall soon landed a job with CNN, launching his career in television journalism. From there, he made his way to the Christian Science Monitor as part of its relatively short-lived television venture, then to ZDF. In tandem with his television career, Marshall has continued to pursue his musical and graphic arts interests, and most of all, his first love — photography.

After the March 11 earthquake, Marshall says, “I didn’t get home for almost a week. It was literally 24 hours a day for five days and maybe 10 minutes on the couch.” Soon after, however, he and his ZDF fellow workers were evacuated to Osaka due to the nuclear fears. They were only permitted on March 22 to make the first of many trips north. “When we came into Minamisanriku (in Miyagi Prefecture), I just looked around and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is crazy,’ and from then on it was work, work, work, work.”

At one point, however, he had a short break in the action and, despite having made a vow to himself never to take his still camera so as not to distract himself from his video work, Marshall said to the bureau chief, “Look, just give me 20 minutes. I’ve got to go look at this. And, whenever I saw something I just started to shoot.” At the time he only had a tiny pocket camera, but he later took along his other equipment for still shots.

The high dynamic range imaging technique (HDR) Marshall used on the exhibited photos has raised them to the level of artwork. They look somewhat like paintings and must be seen in color to be fully appreciated. The same colleague who was moved by them also warned, ‘You’re going to be criticized for making this so beautiful.” Marshall says he remembers thinking, “I’m a photographer and I have an eye and I want people to look.”

HDR allows for a far wider range of tones than normal photography does. “A lot of people say it doesn’t look natural,” Marshall explains, “but I say, no, it doesn’t look like what you think a photograph should look like. But if you look at a photograph, a photograph is nothing like what you see with your eye.”

Though Marshall tries to bring and does bring great sensitivity to his filming, it is with still work that he speaks most eloquently. “A video image is time-dependent. You have to watch it as it develops so you’re locked into it. It’s kind of the difference between reading a book and TV. In a book, you can slow down. You can let your mind wander. You can make associations,” he explains. Photographs are “very much like a meditation. You’re looking at what’s happening inside you as you’re observing something.”

Marshall tries to describe his personal feelings when confronted with the scenes of disaster. “It’s a little strange to say it but I found the situation both completely terrible and incredibly beautiful at the same time. I was having a really hard time processing that internally because I thought, ‘Jesus, so many people have died and there’s so much destruction and yet this is existence, this happened, this is in front of me.’ It was hard to describe the feeling. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is beautiful, oh, my God!’ like a sunset, but it was so interesting somehow, the rearrangement of reality, that I thought, that’s an aspect I don’t think most people are going to be able to see.”

He describes one scene he came across in the sand in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. “Everything’s gone and there was a ski boot, and a little Buddhist altar, and somebody’s hair dryer, and a little bear in an aloha suit. And they were all just sitting half buried in the sand. And I just looked at that and thought, ‘You know, we take our lives for granted in a way. We go day to day. You do your thing. You get into a routine and you don’t really think about the deeper meaning of life or why we’re here, what it means. You get kind of numb. You just follow routines and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’

“It’s like in Zen. They have a stick and when you start to fall asleep, they come and whack you on the shoulder and it just jolts you. It jolts you into awareness.”

Marshall admits the jolts he has received during his years in Japan have resulted in a personal about-face. “When I first came here, for years and years I was very negative. ‘I don’t want to be here! These people are all f—-ing robots!’ . . . Kobe changed that for me.”

In covering the aftermath of the January 1995 quake there, Marshall was moved by “how people organized themselves after that disaster.” Believing that people would react in a way similar to what later happened in the United States following Hurricane Katrina, he says, “I looked and I was really flabbergasted. I said, ‘They’re organizing. They’re helping each other’ and I said, ‘OK, there’s something here that I completely misunderstood.’ Of course, there’s a downside to it, but that changed my view from half empty to half full, so to speak, and I personally think that Tohoku is another example that really clearly highlights both the advantages and disadvantages of Japanese culture.”

Marshall contemplates what may come of the Tohoku disaster and even looks forward to a “positive” development from the tragedy. “As horrible as it is, it can have a very silver lining in that it has washed away everything and people really have to reinvent the whole thing. If they can use their strengths to do that, I think it will bring some value out of this whole crazy tragedy.”

And, he points out, the world is watching. “All of a sudden, interest shifted back to Japan. There’s a very, very important ongoing story in Japan. It’s a question of how does a society rebuild itself? Everyone is looking, especially on the nuclear issue, because this is a hot-button issue throughout the world. How is Japan going to deal with this? And I’m not talking about all of the scandals and the government, but given the fact of what we now have, a low-probability, high-impact event, it’s now you see the actual consequences of real problems.”

Of his trips north, Marshall says, “I was always happy to go up, as painful as it was, because I saw such incredible stories of human courage and people coping.” This strengthened the insights he’d gained from Kobe. “The way they helped each other, their cheerfulness and their lack of self-pity, this is amazing to me. This is something very unique in Japan. It’s definitely one of their strengths. . . .

“I’ve traveled all over the world and, you can say what you will about why, there is an incredible amount of cooperation and self-sacrifice for the good of the whole society. Of course, that has negative sides as well, but I think this as a model is going to be increasingly important for the world.”

Toby Marshall can be contacted at kymarto123@ybb.ne.jp