At a symposium on “Trauma and Utopia” held in Tokyo in October 2014, photographer Naoya Hatakeyama talked about his work in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a disaster that killed his mother and destroyed his home in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. During this, he acknowledged that the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami had taken 230,000 lives, more than 10 times as many as were taken as a result of 3/11, and yet these victims were not in the public consciousness in the same way as the Japanese disaster, nominally because the Japanese mass media were adept at keeping the memory of 3/11 alive. This was rather clumsily translated by the interpreter as being a sign of the admiration of Japanese culture around the world and the “powerful” Japanese media, rather than the more ambivalent point that Hatakeyama was expressing about the obscurity into which the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people had disappeared.
In Japan, we are reminded almost daily about the 3/11 disaster by the mainstream media. The frequency, quality and tone of these reports is a hugely problematic issue for anyone who wishes to distinguish between national identity and natural disaster. This is the topic of Gennifer S. Weisenfeld’s historical, but wholly relevant book “Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923,” which acts as an incisive reminder that our reactions to trauma are configured by society and politics.
This is one issue among many when it comes to analyzing photo books that have 3/11 as their subject. Another is that the variety of publications means we are obliged to view the event in categorically different ways — photographs can be collections of anything from camera phone snapshots to expensive large-format prints.
Hatekayama, previously known for his extremely precise and composed landscapes that aestheticize man’s negative impact on nature, recorded the opposite with a subdued sense of artistry in his photo book “Natural Stories” (2011), moving more into the role of witness and documentarian. Photographer Takashi Homma is less ambivalent about the extent to which he intervenes in his book “Mushrooms From the Forest” (2011). He uses still-life photos of irradiated mushrooms, manipulates typography in titles and captions, and parodies scientific objectivity to create a book that is critical, beautiful and elegiac.
There are, of course, hundreds of books that come at 3/11 from a more journalistic angle. Photographer Masanori Kobayashi’s “3.11 to 1.17 Daishinsai” juxtaposes his images from the aftermath of the Tohoku tsunami with the Great Hanshin earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995. His book exemplifies the oddness of the photojournalist’s job: transforming something awful into something eye-catching and, in some senses, visually satisfying.
Many of the subjects in Kobayashi’s book often appear elsewhere; there is the sight of the huge ship beached at Kesennuma and the blue-and-white ferry that washed-up on top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture. That these scenes have been repeatedly photographed reveals an obvious but very uncomfortable point: The aftermath of the tsunami — or the aftermath of any disaster — can be an extraordinary source of visual pleasure.
In some photo books of 3/11, the visual appeal is at one remove from portraying destroyed landscapes. One example is “Tsunami, Photographs, and Then,” a catalog of a project in which family photos collected by volunteers from the debris immediately after the tsunami were cleaned, scanned and, if possible, returned to their owners. As one of the volunteers, U.S.-based photographer Slav Zatoka also includes documentation of this project in his self-published book “Sunflowers in Fukushima,” which also displays the Tohoku disaster in its wider social context by including photos of a post-3/11 anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo.
Tomohiro Muda’s “Icons of Time” is similar to Homma’s book in that it has objects from the disaster zone photographed against a white background. In this case the objects are salvaged mud-stained items such as a shoe, a ball of string, a doll. The style also recalls Irving Penn’s famous photographs of found objects, but in spirit may be closer to Rinko Kawauchi’s “Light and Shadow,” a book of images of a pair of pigeons — one black, one white — flitting about the wrecked houses and earthquake cracked ground; that is to say, insufferably sentimental and precious.
Another approach has been to photograph 3/11 survivors and commemorate the culture of the region as in photojournalist Yoshino Oishi’s black-and-white images in “Fukushima, Tsuchi to Ikiru.” Oishi previously captured images of postwar Vietnam and Cambodia, and survivors of concentration camps — photographs in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Czech photographer Josef Koudelka.
Keiko Nasu’s “My Private Fukushima,” also in black and white, documents the veteran photojournalist Kikujiro Fukushima — still a radical in his 90s — photographing Iitate, an area near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant where farmers stayed put in defiance of government instructions to evacuate.
There is no doubt that some publishers have used 3/11 as a selling point. Content related to the disaster is sometimes claimed to give a publication added value, or to give the impression that purchasing it would be a gesture of solidarity. Unlike the mainstream media, however, photo books offer significantly differing viewpoints to consider.
The sum total of these many genres and styles is that we are in a better position to understand something about March 11, 2011: There is no one narrative, or one morally acceptable reaction to what happened.