Believing that the lens of a camera can cut through to a more authentic reality than is apparent to the human eye at the time, a Japanese photographer has created a pictorial record of the current pandemic’s impact on Tokyo.
It comes after a similar endeavor to chronicle the devastation that followed in the wake of the triple disaster that hit northeastern Japan in 2011.
Takeshi Yamagishi, who has long been fascinated by what he sees as the power struggle between civilization and nature, believes that humanity might be at a crossroads now, ready to reconsider this most crucial relationship.
“When people look at those pictures after half a century, I wonder whether they will think people are still doing the same stupid things or have made some progress,” Yamagishi says of the two projects.
Yamagishi shoots pictures of buildings and landscapes that he sees as reflecting human thoughts and behavior.
Human perceptions of reality are “selective,” he argues, because people will see what they want to see. In contrast, cameras just record what is out there.
Illustrating his point, he says he is often amazed at how photographs reveal the difference between his version of reality and what the camera actually captures.
“Photographs are neutral in terms of perceptions, and that’s the most intriguing aspect for me,” he says.
A collection of photographs of scenes in the capital during the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by text he has written, was published as the book “Tokyo Pandemic” in April by Waseda University Press.
The title of each photo in the book is the date and place of the image being captured, such as “Aug. 9, 2020, the Nippon Foundation Para Arena in Higashi-Yashio, Shinagawa Ward.”
At the end of each chapter, there is a memo showing the number of new infections and cumulative number of infections in the capital on the date corresponding to the date of the picture, just like a coronavirus tracker.
When Yamagishi looked at a group of prefabricated structures on the premises of the Para Arena, a gymnasium that was converted into a makeshift facility to accommodate COVID-19 patients with zero to mild symptoms, he recalled the makeshift houses built for people who had lost their homes due to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 10 years ago, he wrote in the book.
Since the photograph was taken, with the Aug. 24 opening of the Tokyo Paralympics approaching, the Nippon Foundation reopened the facility for athletic training on April 1.
Yamagishi, 44, started taking pictures of Tohoku before the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, but he became more actively engaged in capturing scenes there after he took a memorable photo at a port in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, in May 2011.
It was a picture of a building that was stripped bare by the tsunami, which he saw as a symbol of a “crystal of artificiality” taking in nature, a foreign body, from the outside, just like a plant absorbs sunlight.
His work in Tohoku, spanning nearly a decade, became the photo book “Tohoku Lost, Left, Found” published in 2019 by Lixil Publishing.
With some critics warning that both virus outbreaks and many natural disasters, as well as their intensity, may be the result, directly or indirectly, of human activities on the environment, Yamagishi suggests it is time to reconsider our “human-centric” approach when dealing with nature.
For Yamagishi, a city or town ideally exists in a delicate balance between human work and something humankind cannot create or control, which he refers to as nature, and he suggests that he will continue his journey to capture such scenes in the future.
An exhibition featuring Yamagishi’s photography of Tokyo, among other photographers’ works, had been under way from April 15 at Tokyo Little House in the capital but it was temporarily suspended due to the country’s third state of emergency launched in Tokyo and three other prefectures on April 25.
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