Nuclear disaster eclipses East Timor, Somalia conflicts: photographer

by Toshiyuki Inaba

Kyodo

Dominic Nahr, a photojournalist with Magnum Photos, feels even more horrified in Fukushima Prefecture than he does in such conflict-ravaged countries as East Timor or Somalia.

Still, the 30-year-old keeps returning to the radiation-hobbled prefecture to take shots of residents and former workers at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, which was crippled by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

“It is an important theme for human beings,” Nahr said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Braving the possibility of high radiation exposure, Nahr has documented the struggles of people in Fukushima for both Japanese and overseas media.

Shortly after the quake struck off the coast of Tohoku on March 11, 2011, Nahr came to Japan for the first time as a contract photographer for Time magazine.

He said he was speechless at the enormity of the consequences brought on by the tsunami when he entered the coastal city of Natori in Miyagi Prefecture.

The following month, Nahr visited Minamisoma in Fukushima. There, about 20 km from the No. 1 plant, Nahr witnessed something he had never seen before during his career.

“It looked calm, but you could see fear in their faces,” Nahr said. “I was shocked.”

Most of the over 70,000 Minamisoma residents were forced to evacuate immediately after the nuclear disaster started. As of mid-April, only half had returned to their homes, with the others still in temporary housing or rented accommodations inside or outside the city, according to city government data.

The tragedy, he said, appears to have been the result of people becoming greedy to generate energy and pursue economic development.

The Swiss-born, Hong Kong-raised photographer, who later joined Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative, flies to Fukushima from Nairobi, where he currently resides, whenever he can.

Three years after the start of the crisis, “people in Fukushima look calm but are more depressed, accepting their situation,” he said.

Nahr said what currently worries him is that the Japanese people seem to have failed to engage in candid discussions about Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s man-made disaster.

People living in Tokyo seemingly “don’t want to talk about Fukushima,” he said, stressing that the country as a whole should engage in serious discussions on whether nuclear power plants are truly rational.

  • Starviking

    I don’t know if the photojournalist is just anti-nuclear, or just has no empathy for Somalis and East Timurese. The people of Fukushima have suffered, but to compare their suffering to Somalia – where half a million people have died since the early 1990s, or East Timor – where 20% of the population died under Indonesian rule shows skewed thinking. Why was this even published?

  • Sam Gilman

    This is reaching a new low for the Japan Times’ anti-nuclear campaign.

    To be clear, the bungled evacuation from Fukushima has caused a great deal of suffering. Communities have been torn apart, livelihoods lost and the stress has hastened the deaths of many old and infirm.

    However, to suggest that this is worse than the scale of devastation from wars in Somalia and East Timor (in total more than half a million people killed) and then ask for a “rational debate” on nuclear power is in unspeakably poor taste.

    Photographers specialising in conflict and disaster have to tread a careful line between telling/showing the world a story it needs to hear (and we certainly must not forget the people suffering from the evacuations), and straightforward exploitation of their subjects for their own personal benefit. I don’t think Mr Nahr has it right.

    I found an interview with the photographer. It is quite clear that far from letting the camera tell the story, he has a political agenda. Remember: he is comparing this with the aftermaths of brutal wars that killed tens and hundreds of thousands. Note also what he says about people’s health.

    Q: So, what has changed over the past couple of years?

    DN: I could move around much easier this time. Many of the inhabitants are now able to return to their houses to check on the conditions of things. The main streets at the borders of the red zone are crowded, and there is even a supermarket doing a thriving business. At the same time, there is still a ghostly emptiness. The government however, is very keen to return to a sense of normality. The exclusion zone is due to be reduced and they no longer want people to wear protection masks. That would have been inconceivable a year ago!

    Q: Does that make the fear greater?

    DN: Definitely. It is still too early to know the degree of secondary damage. And the people are really worried. I met a woman who is no longer able to see clearly. Another man has gone blind. Why? No one there knows why.

    If Dominic Nahr was genuinely concerned for these people, why couldn’t he be bothered to contact an eye specialist to confirm if it could be radiation from Fukushima causing blindness, or even sit at his desk and google it (hint: while there are lots of known possible reasons why people lose their sight, low level radiation exposure isn’t one). If he’s so concerned about supposed “secondary effects”, why doesn’t he contact radiation health specialists, or google what they say? They’re not silent on the issue. Doesn’t it matter to him whether it’s actually safe for people to return?

    It appears that he, like so many in the anti-nuclear movement unfortunately, thrive on promoting Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, a tactic so common it has its own acronym. It does not benefit his politics to actually have answers to these health questions, so he doesn’t ask them. He tells stories about his own exposure to “dangerous” levels of radiation – and these are not true unless he’s been inside the plant. Are these stories good for his business?

    In his fervour, he overlooks the fact that it simply isn’t helpful to imply to the world in glorious technicolor – but quite wrongly – that returnees are falling ill from radiation. Does he think it’s just the government that wants to return to a sense of normality, and not these poor people themselves? Does he think his open determination to overstate the current threat to these people’s lives is appropriate behaviour for a photojournalist who – let’s not forget – earns his money by bringing images of suffering to our media?

    So what of this rational debate that he asks for? Surely, it has to include global warming, given that nuclear, for all its faults, is unequivocally a low carbon form of energy.

    Ah. You see: Somalia.

    In Somalia itself, for example, it is thought by climate specialists that the drought that recently killed 50,000-100,000 people was probably brought on by the impact of rising temperatures.

    That’s five tsunamis in one go, and – if you include all the deaths over time associated with the bungled evacuation – almost a hundred Fukushimas. That’s just Somalia in 2011. And that, as the climate experts are urging us to understand, is just for starters.

    However, the problem is the we already know Mr Nahr’s nationality conversion rate. We know that Somalians count for less for him. I’m not being facetious here, I’m raising an important point.

    For those of us concerned by global warming – and thereby very concerned by such campaigns as this to abandon one of the major sources of low CO2 energy – one of the hardest things is to convince people in rich countries of the sheer scale of the threat faced by humanity. Part of the problem is that it is by and large, the populations of poorer countries that are going to suffer the most – and are already suffering the most. People who are, on average, a whole lot darker than the people causing the problem.

    That is why I have written a long explanatory reply to an article that suggests half a million dead Africans and Timorese isn’t as bad as Fukushima. Such attitudes are part of the problem of tackling climate change.