Whether it’s the work of Robert Capa in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) or Richard Drew’s iconic “Falling Man” picture of a man free-falling from the World Trade Center in 2001, photography has provided us with the images that we’ve used to visualize every disaster of the 20th century and beyond. But the art form doesn’t simply record disaster, it documents what comes after.
Four Japanese photographers — Takashi Arai, Toshiya Murakoshi, Keiko Sasaoka and Aya Fujioka — have independently been using the medium to document different aspects of two nuclear events Japan has experienced over the past century: the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.
Using vastly different techniques and styles, these photographers have attempted to record how Japan confronts such social issues, looking at a wide variety of subjects in the process.
By looking at the state of Japan today, they are questioning whether the country can ever be in a position to resolve such issues as it looks toward the future.
Takashi Arai, 39, creates his images through the application of daguerreotype, a delicate 19th-century technique that produces a photograph on polished silver copper plates.
Unlike the early users of this technology, however, Arai often utilizes powerful voltage lights in the process because he wants to create “an incredibly sharp image — no matter what.”
The results are both crisp and eerie, and possess a measure of reality that’s hard to compare, looking more like handmade paintings than photography as we know it in the 21st century.
He uses this process to capture the immediacy and illusion of nuclear radiation. “Here and There,” an ongoing project started in 2011, documents the after-effects of the 2011 nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture by photographing the people, places, animals and plants that were affected by the disaster.
One of Arai’s photographs in particular stands out: The ghostly image of an irradiated lily, white and juxtaposed brightly against the darkness of a silver plate. It’s as if the photo has managed to preserve the spirit of the lily, suggesting that a link exists between life and contamination.
Arai was interested in Japan’s grim nuclear legacy before the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns.
“I went to see this small wooden boat (the Daigo Fukuryu Maru) that went to Bikini Atoll in 1954, survived the American H-bomb testing and then came back. I was very overwhelmed by this,” Arai says. “Later, I became friends with the fishermen on the boat who survived the blast.”
In fact, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, Arai was in a park in Todoroki photographing fallout samples that had been brought back by the crew.
“Afterward, I slowly found out about what had happened at Fukushima and the earthquake,” he says. “I had been holding death ash (ash from the H-bomb test) when it happened. It was some kind of message.”
Arai is also working on a project titled “Tomorrow’s History” in which he photographs young people across Japan, but particularly those who have grown up in the shadow of Fukushima as well as Hiroshima, which was destroyed by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II.
This series attempts to draw parallels between the accident at Fukushima and the atomic bombings in 1945, focusing on their long-term multigenerational effects.
In Fukushima, he photographs students in high school, many of whom have spent their entire adolescence in the wake of the accident.
“You know I will never marry, right?” a young woman told Arai during the course of the project.
In the same way that the survivors of the atomic bombings and their descendants have been tainted by the experience, young people in Fukushima continue to face discrimination and yet feel “unable and unwilling to talk about it because it has become taboo.”
Through his portraits, Arai attempts to give these young people a voice.
Keiko Sasaoka, 40, attempts to draw parallels between the bombing of Hiroshima and the Fukushima disaster by dealing with the aftereffects of a nuclear crisis.
While Arai tends to focus on specific characters or objects in his body of work, Sasaoka uses broader vistas and wider shots to make viewers consider the landscape as a whole and how it has been affected.
Born in Hiroshima, Sasaoka started out in photography by taking pictures of the seashore. When she was younger, her “eyes were opened by the ocean and the shoreline with its ever-changing landscape.”
In 2011, having just made the switch to digital photography, she took thousands of images of the northeastern Tohoku region in the wake of the tsunami and nuclear disaster, focusing initially on the shore and the devastating effects of the tsunami and nuclear crisis. The images from Tohoku eventually became “Remembrance,” a series of 41 small books.
These ephemeral 176 mm × 250 mm pamphlets each fold out to become much larger 500 mm × 707 mm posters in their own right. The meditative images capture sweeping landscapes, dotted with plastic bags filled with contaminated soil or the odd solitary figure in coveralls. We see the ocean, dirt, trees and desolation. Although the effects of radiation on the environment are not immediately apparent, you can find traces of it if you look long enough.
In another project titled “Park City,” Sasaoka focuses on her hometown, arguing that the nuclear issues related to Hiroshima are “complicated.”
“Have you been to Hiroshima recently?” she asks. “They even have sidewalk cafes. It’s like a festival at the Peace Park.”
“Everything changed after the Obamas visited Hiroshima (in 2016),” Sasaoka says, adding that she hopes her photography captures her hometown as being much more than a “city reborn after the bomb.”
Although Sasaoka’s photographs don’t appear to be explicitly political or overly critical, they do raise a number of questions. In using the Tohoku region and Hiroshima as a backdrop for her photography, Sasaoka seeks to look beneath the veil and see what is hidden in the shadows.
Her body of work tries to capture the future and the past in a single frame capturing such seemingly simple scenes as a street in Hiroshima or a shoreline in Tohoku.
Aya Fujioka, 46, wants to “create images showing the world that exists in the shadow of Hiroshima.”
Fujioka’s images primarily focus on people and their relationship to Hiroshima’s history. With a slight magical realistic bent, her vibrant photographs capture the strangeness of Hiroshima in the 21st century.
Growing up in Hiroshima Prefecture, Fujioka attended the commemorative “Peace Day” on Aug. 6 every year at school and frequently visited the Peace Park.
Still, Fujioka is from the city of Kure, not Hiroshima, and therefore she is reluctant to talk about that city with any confidence.
“People write Hiroshima in katakana when referring to the atomic bomb and its after-effects,” she says.
Nagasaki was treated in the same way and, more recently, the same has been applied to Fukushima.
In her photography, Fujioka tries to tease out the legacy between Hiroshima (in kakatana) and the city as it stands today.
After spending many years away from Hiroshima (in Taiwan, Europe, New York and, later, Tokyo), Fujioka returned in 2013 and began photographing her home prefecture.
She photographs “everyday scenes” in Hiroshima, where signs of the atomic bombing still exist, publishing many of these in a new book titled “Here Goes River.”
By capturing the city’s inhabitants taking part in fairly ordinary activities a mere stone’s throw from the center of the atomic blast, Fujioka is trying to show how contrary it still is to live among the remnants of the bombing.
At first glance, Toshiya Murakoshi’s images seem unconnected to the other three photographers profiled here. His shots are lush and depict rural landscapes in stark black and white.
One gallery owner has said Murakoshi’s photographs “smell of Shinjuku,” which perhaps isn’t surprising given his training under Daido Moriyama and the grainy style of photographs for which his teacher is known for.
Although Murakoshi’s photographs aren’t as blurry or grainy as Moriyama’s, they’re dark and often deliberately overdeveloped, a technique that gives them a mysterious and lonesome feel.
And although it isn’t immediately obvious, his photographs are deeply connected to Fukushima.
Murakoshi, 38, began photographing parts of Fukushima around his family’s farm in 2006, a few years before the nuclear crisis struck. He is a little ambivalent about the manner in which his images create a broader understanding of Fukushima and the Tohoku earthquake.
“I’m not sure if my photographs changed at all due to the nuclear incident,” he says. “I continued to take photographs as I had before.”
Murakoshi wants his audience to feel free to take different things away from the same photo.
“If they find the photographs interesting and find out I am from Fukushima and the photographs are also from Fukushima, that’s good,” Murakoshi says. “However, if people just think they are landscape photographs, that’s fine as well. Of course, I don’t think I am taking just plain-old landscape photographs.”
Although he refuses to categorize his photographs, his images appear to tell a story about the nuclear crisis and what it means to live nearby.
“My family’s experience of the crisis is unique,” he says. “Radiation wasn’t detected in the area we live in, so we retained our topsoil.”
Still, the family had to review the way it operated. “My family’s farm is 58 kilometers from the disaster site,” he says. “Nevertheless, we had to stop selling our milk just after the crisis in March 2011 because of possible radiation. In the end, we decided to stop farming dairy cows because of the incident.”
Murakoshi’s hometown is clearly the unifying force in his life and his work.
“I guess I take photographs of the countryside because I’m from the countryside,” he says.
The four photographers take vastly different approaches to their work but they all appear to be working toward a common goal — documenting the ongoing effects of a catastrophe and recording history as and when it happens.
As a medium, photography is uniquely suited to do precisely this. Individual images capture unique moments in history and together, over time, they form a narrative that can, ultimately, help convey a story.
Such images don’t necessarily provide us with any clear answers.
They do, however, often allow us to ask questions and if there’s anything that can be learned from Japan’s experiences with various nuclear issues over the past 75 years or so, it’s that such questions can ultimately help pave the way for future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past.