Yesterday I showed a new tear sheet from ‘O Mundo da Fotografia Digital’ magazine, in Portugal, who were reprinting an interview with me and set of my images from the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Tohoku, Japan. The article and images originally ran in the Digital Camera magazine in the UK. The magazine had originally contacted me and wished to interview me about my time in Japan as a correspondent, and what it was like to work on the Fukushima story. This interview took place, in late 2012, just as I returned to live and once again be based in Glasgow, Scotland, as a freelance photographer.
Click here to see more of my photographs of Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Tohoku tsunami/earthquake, Japan.
The interview from the magazine, done in 2012 via email, with journalist Marcus Hawkins is below:
How long were you based in Japan for?
I was there for 9 years, until moving back to Scotland in early August 2012.
Can you briefly tell me why you spent so much time there?
Like many who go there, I was there for love. I’d met a girl, who became my wife, and I went to Japan to be with her.
And why you came back?
After 9 years I wished to be back in my home country of Scotland, it’s an exciting time here with lots going on, and I wished to photograph here again. Also, last years triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe made my wife and I think about where we wished to be, what we wanted to do, and also about safety for our young daughter. There were many reasons for coming back, both personal and professional.
What are the most pleasurable and not-so-pleasurable aspects of being an editorial photographer in Japan?
It was great being there for 9 years exploring, through assignments, the country and the nation. It was great to travel to all corners of Japan, and into Asia, on client’s money, and also highly educational to sit through interviews and work on stories and learn about the people, the culture, and the region.
Traveling by bullet train was also an easy and enjoyable way to zoom around the country, and made life easy. I never tired of those journeys, they were always exciting.
Where were you and what were you doing in Japan when the tsunami hit and the Fukushima disaster began unfolding?
I was in downtown Tokyo when the earthquake hit, and I immediately knew it was larger and more serious than any I had previously experienced. Luckily I had my cameras with me and I was shooting images in the street before the earthquake even finished. For the next two hours or so I photographed people as they flooded from buildings into the streets, and found they could not go anywhere due to all public transport being stopped, before I slowly made my way home to my family and to send out my images.
The next day I travelled north heading to the tsunami area with some journalists, but as we neared Fukushima we heard the nuclear plant, a little up the road from us, had exploded. Some of the team travelled onwards, but myself and another colleague turned back for Tokyo, unsure of the immediate circumstances of the explosion and expected radiation fallout.
The photographer’s instinct must have kicked in immediately – what did you take pictures of?
As I had returned to Tokyo I tried to cover the story from there, not the tsunami devastation obviously, but the effect of the triple disaster on the capital city- the blackouts, the turning off of lights to save energy, the public panic buying batteries and water, food being cleared from supermarket shelves. There was work to be done in Tokyo also.
You’ve been back this year (2012) to document how the people and places are surviving. Can you describe what it’s like now in the exclusion zone?
I’ve since been back to Tohoku area many times, to the tusnami hit areas and also to what has become known as the ‘exclusion zone’, or ‘the zone’ as we came to refer to it.
In the tsunami hit region each town has dealt with the disaster in their own way. Some towns managed to get the debris cleared relatively quickly, and rebuilding has even begun. In other towns the rubble still remains, and it seems little progress has been made. But the people have all shown formidable character and tried as best they could to immediately carry on, and deal with the situation.
In the nuclear exclusion zone which is a 20km ring around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant there is now no-one living, it has been evacuated. Within that zone it is as if time has stood still. There are still cars sitting upturned in the middle of fields, carried there by the tsunami wave, or newspapers with the date of March 12th 2011 sit outside newsagents shops. It feels a little spooky.
Many people had to move to temporary housing, due to their house being lost to the tsunami, or due to having to evacuate due to radiation. I photographed and met with many people who were in the temporary housing and for them the situation is still far from resolved- what do you do when you’ve lost everything ? To pick yourself up and carry on is hard, and some people are not coping well with it. The news situation in the world may have moved on, but for those people the disaster is still unfolding, or still far from resolved.
What sort of access were you given? What restrictions did you have to work under?
It is freely allowed to travel to the tsunami region, it’s so large, but access to the nuclear exclusion zone is controlled by police road blocks, and threats of criminal proceedings and fines should you enter the area without permission.
I managed to gain access three times on assignments, each time through different means and courses, for clients The Times and The Guardian. You have to be taken in with people who have the permission or authority to take you. I once entered with a resident of the area- a farmer going back to check on his cattle, and another time I went with police on patrol. It takes time to gain the access, or to find the right channel to get the access. It wasn’t easy.
And if you do gain access it is only for a couple of hours at a time. After all it is highly contaminated, and I wouldn’t really wish to spend too long there.
There’s still radiation fallout there, what does that mean in terms of working safely?
You have to keep your time short, and also go with suitable protection. I wore a Tyvek suit which goes over my clothes and which gets disposed off properly on exit from the zone, you wear boots which can be easily washed. I would carry a geiger counter to tell me the radiation readings of where I am, and also a dosimeter which records how much radiation I am being exposed to, I would carry this dosimeter on all assignments there and it would thus keep a record of my exposure over time. The dosimeter was kindly given to me by one of my clients, Greenpeace, and they would keep a tally of my exposure.
I tried also to stay on tarmac, or on hard surfaces where the rain may have washed away some radiation fallout. Stepping onto sand, or dusty gravel, or into mud, would lead to higher levels of contamination on your shoes.
I guess you had to travel light – what camera and lenses did you shoot with? How did you ensure these were ‘clean’ after you’d been in the zone?
I travelled light as I always do, with as little equipment as possible. I would carry two Canons, a 5D and a 1Dmk3, a 17-35mm, and a 70-200mm. I made sure that these cameras never touched anything, or sat on the ground, where they could be contaminated with radiation. And after exiting the zone they were thoroughly wiped with wet wipes which were disposed off, and if I was at a checking station where I could have geiger counters passed over me and my equipment I would have them scanned also.
As a photographer, confronted by such a scale of wasteland, how do you begin finding the shots?
In the nuclear exclusion zone it is quite hard to tell the story. Radiation can’t be seen, tasted, smelt, or heard… But I tried to find the human angle, I photographed a farmer going back to lovingly tender to his cattle which he couldn’t bare to destroy. Or I photographed police on patrol, searching beside broken homes or walking amongst the swings and slides of a children’s play park. Even though the area is deserted you still have to get across the sense of loss, the loss of people and the community life. Newspapers dated from the time of the disaster sat yellowing outside a newsagents, little things like that can convey much.
It’s a strange question, but what does the market for ‘disaster anniversary photographs’ demand? How much influence does that have on the type of pictures you shoot?
Earlier this year as the one year anniversary of the disaster approached I was very, very busy with assignments. I was travelling up to Tohoku region on a weekly basis to shoot stories and portraits for clients, as they prepared the stories they would run at the anniversary time in early March. So January and February were busy as everyone prepared for the March 11th anniversary. There was also a lot of competitiveness amongst the journalists and photographers to find unique and original stories on the lead up to the anniversary, and many people were looking for ways to get into the nuclear exclusion zone.
There was no real change of the types of images asked of me, I did what I usually shoot, reportage stories and portraits.
The people you met, the stores you heard – which ones stood out the most for you?
All the stories were so fascinating to hear, but also so sad. Perhaps the saddest was from the Okawa Elementary school, a disaster in which the kids and teachers survived the earthquake, but then due to the indecision by teachers of where to evacuate the children to time was wasted and the tsunami raged in, killing 74 children and their teachers. I had to visit there 2 or 3 times to meet with and photograph 2 mothers who were still searching the mud for the bodies of their children, 1 year on from the disaster. It was an incredibly sad story to cover, and certainly many journalists felt it was the saddest story they had had to cover.
I stood in the January cold one afternoon, in the mud, as snowflakes fell and listened to a mother who was searching with a JCB digger for her child’s body say how cold her child must be at the bottom of the river. It was a heart wrenching moment, and one which brought me to tears during the assignment and afterwards. And then after that moment the mother gave myself and journalist colleague, Justin McCurry, hot cans of coffee from her car, her generosity and friendliness was remarkable.
A lot of your job is all about people skills, how do you connect with people who’ve lost so much, particularly when you’re covered by a face mask and protective clothing?
In the tsunami zone there was no need to wear protective clothing, and that is where you could meet people. In the exclusion zone there isn’t anyone, bar the people you were with. And on those exclusion zone stories, the interviews were really done outside the zone where it is easy to sit and talk and you do not have one eye on your timer and dosimeter readings. You would then go into the zone to do the photography and look around.
Were there any situations where you felt uncomfortable about photographing people?
No, none that I can think of. For people who have lost so much, then to be photographed is the least of their worries, and generally I could photograph freely.
You’ve been photographing the nuclear protests as well, they seem a bit more, ‘colourful’ than protests you’d get here – is that the case?
The nuclear protests were also fascinating to cover in Tokyo. For a lot of Japanese people it was their first time to protest, and certainly some of the demonstrations were colourful or encouraged to have a happy atmosphere in order to attract families or young people out to protest, people who may not normally have had the courage to attend such a demonstration.
Are you still one of the photographers for Greenpeace? What kind of work does that involve?
I’m lucky enough to still photograph for Greenpeace, and obviously the nuclear disaster kept them busy and as such I would have assignments to photograph radiation testing as the Greenpeace staff monitored the radiation readings of parks or streets, nursery schools etc in Fukushima city. Or, on another assignment I was aboard the Rainbow Warrior II ship as the crew did testing of seawater and seaweed samples off of Fukushima to look for signs of radiation contamination. My job was to photograph and document the work, and the images were used for media, website and internal publications, as well as just being a document of the activities.
What does it mean to you to get your work published in the papers, and books?
Even though I have been photographing for media for many years I am still proud to have my images published, and I hope that they help explain a situation, or let someone know what is happening in a far off land. I felt passionate about the Fukushima story, as the media moves on so fast sometimes to the next big story, the next big disaster, and it was important as someone living in Japan to let the world know that for the people of northern Japan the disaster is still something very real. It is still something they are coming to terms with, and dealing with, and some people felt that even now, 1.5yrs later, that the reconstruction work still hasn’t really begun. It is an important story still, and I always hope that my images, and the stories of the journalists that I work with, keep the story alive and go someway to helping inform and educate people.
Does it bother you if the pictures that you’ve carefully framed get cropped by designers?
No, not anymore. Perhaps occasionally I get disappointed at the use of my images, but over the years I’ve grown thick skinned to it and once I send them out I let go of them to an extent. It isn’t my newspaper or magazine, once the client has them it is up to them how they crop them. But of course you hope for a good show!
Text: ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2012, all rights reserved.