On a recent trip to Tohoku, photographer Naoya Hatakeyama took a picture of a tree. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable tree, but it caught his attention all the same.
In Hatakeyama’s photo the tree stands in the middle distance, right in the center of the image. It is framed by a brilliant blue sky and clouds — perfect late summer weather. There is tall grass in the foreground, but the eye drifts back to the tree. A concrete bridge, a green-and-grey horizontal divide across the image, intersects the tree in the background and beyond that is a forest. But the photograph’s composition forces you back to the tree, standing alone and strong.
Eventually you notice that half of the tree has hundreds of small green leaves but the other half is dead, branches pointing naked into the sky. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light, but somehow the dead branches seem darker than the branches with the lush leaves.
Hatakeyama, 59, says this tree stood in the path of a tsunami on March 11, 2011. It effectively became what’s known as a Krumholz tree, which are stunted, gnarled and deformed by harsh winds. In this case, however, it was the salt water of the devastating wave that caused the deformity. Still, the tree refused to die, and half of it began to sprout again. It may be cloven, forever altered by the tsunami, but it survives.
Hatakeyama’s life was also altered the day the tsunami came. He was born in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, one of the communities hit hardest by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Before the quake, Hatakeyama enjoyed life as a world-renowned photographer who shot landscapes that captured the impact humans have on the environment. He traveled the world shooting mines, spent quarries and roads.
On that March 11, the embankments in his hometown broke from the force of the tsunami. Hatakeyama’s mother was among thousands washed away, along with his family home and countless heirlooms and photographs.
“I don’t know how I changed, but it was a shock,” Hatakeyama says, looking back on that time, now almost seven years ago. “It’s not so much about whether I changed or not; the world is now divided into before and after March 11, 2011.”
When I ask Hatakeyama about childhood memories, he pulls out two photographs. The first is the only picture that escaped the tsunami. In it, a little boy, pensive, stares out from a small, dingy world of black and white.
“I brought it back to Tokyo after a trip home some years ago to get a laugh out of my friends,” he recalls.
The other photograph is one he took of his mother and sister a few years before 2011. The sun highlights his mother’s silver hair, forming a kind of halo, and the photograph itself feels intensely private and meditative.
These two shots are far from the images Hatakeyama typically takes, however. In fact, it wasn’t until the fall of 2011, when Hatakeyama had a solo exhibit at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum titled “Natural Stories,” that he showed photographs of his family or his hometown in public. For that exhibition, he included a slide show of personal snapshots he had taken over the years during visits home, alongside printed photographs of those same locations taken soon after the tsunami.
It was this juxtaposition — of the vibrant festival scenes and sun-dappled rivers, with the oddly serene images of the post-tsunami wreckage — that showed how much his work, and perhaps life, had changed.
The metaphorical divide returned in a 2016 exhibition titled “The Cloven Landscape” at Sendai Mediatheque. The entire show was split in two by a wall, with the first section presenting the photographs on which Hatakeyama’s reputation was established. There were images of Parisian traffic, collapsed caves and bridges — one shot, “Terrils #02337,” was of two trees that looked as if they had once been united until being cut down the middle. It was this image that provided him with the title to the exhibition.
“I think that my feelings from before and after the tsunami are cloven,” Hatakeyama says. “So I imagined this exhibition with the word ‘cloven’ in mind.”
Behind the bisecting wall hung the post-tsunami images. Hatakeyama continued to return to Tohoku after his initial trips north, and many of these photographs record a slow, painful attempt to recover and repopulate — new infrastructure and taller tsunami walls being built in an attempt to contain future disasters.
Of course, Hatakeyama only found his Krumholz tree after “The Cloven Landscape” had ended. To have come across an actual bisected tree that symbolized his entire concept in one image, the artist says he “felt it was something resembling fate.”
In some ways, Hatakeyama’s photographs haven’t changed since the tsunami and the artist himself won’t go so far as to say he has a new style. And though the sense of foreboding in his work may have been imperceptible before the 2011 disaster, throughout his career Hatakeyama has captured images that made evident the vulnerability of human beings. Mines collapse, and so too do embankments. It seems to me that his work foreshadowed what was to come.
On the other hand, while in some ways he used to be an international photographer who photographed the world from afar, now he photographs images of locations he used to know and is perhaps coming to terms with in their new forms.
“I think there has been a change at some level of my subconscious,” he says. “I have some idea, somewhere, that my consciousness has not changed since I was a child. However, I do think I am no longer the same person.” Perhaps it is this seeming contradiction that is at the foundation of the artist’s post-tsunami work
Hatakeyama has spent his career as an onlooker, an interloper observing nature and those who seek to alter and adjust it. Like many photographers, his earlier images suggest he is more comfortable when detached from his surroundings — a watcher. But then it was nature, and the very thing that he had so carefully observed (the way humans seek to alter nature and coexist with the environment) that savagely altered his life. He of all people must have noticed the embankments that sheltered his hometown and his mother’s home from the Kesen River, Hirota Bay and the Pacific Ocean. All of Hatakeyama’s images and their very slight undercurrent of foreboding, perhaps undetectable before the tsunami, came true on that day when those embankments failed to hold against the water.
And just like the tree, Hatakeyama may have been changed incalculably — bisected and divided between before and after — with both sides of his cloven self continuing to push a way forward.