Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 12 March 2021

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – it’s been ten years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami ripped through Japan on March 11, 2011, changing the nation forever. To remember this moment, let’s revisit photojournalist James Whitlow Delano’s book Black Tsunami, which was published by FotoEvidence. Its publication was the first time I interviewed James and since then we’ve spoken on a number of occasions. The most recent was at the end of 2020 as part of the video series Photojournalism Now: In Conversation.

Japan: Ten Years after the Tsunami

(C) James Whitlow Delano

Recently Whitlow Delano went back to photograph the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. Ten years earlier the damage to the reactor had displaced more than 160,000 people. On assignment for The New York Times, Whitlow-Delano shot stills and video for the article ‘There’s No Town Left’: Fukushima’s Eerie Landscapes.

The title is apt. Many of the pictures are so surreal they could be sets from a disaster movie. More frightening is that this is reality, this is what is left of once vibrant communities, homes, livelihoods, lives. Whitlow-Delano’s visual signature, his gritty, visceral images capture the emptiness of the now and the echoes of the past.

Images of these ghost towns are juxtaposed with pictures and video of the radioactive clean up. Watching the footage of the millions of bags of radioactive waste shows the scale of the problem. It is inconceivable that there is so much waste. Where will it all go? 

From the archives:

Black Tsunami – James Whitlow Delano

Interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor first published on 17 January, 2014

“The devastation was apocalyptic, some of the cities were literally wiped off the face of the earth” James Whitlow Delano 2014

American photographer James Whitlow Delano was in Rome, Italy the day the tsunami devastated his adopted homeland of Japan on 11 March, 2011. Oblivious to what had transpired, he called his wife to say he was excited about coming home. “Haven’t you heard what’s happened?” she replied. With disbelief he sat in front of a computer screen in an Internet café at Rome’s Termini station and watched as the horror unfolded. 

Whitlow Delano was fortunate to catch one of the last flights in to Tokyo from Europe. He arrived in the afternoon to learn that the Japanese authorities were grappling with a second potentially even deadlier disaster, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Within 12 hours of landing Whitlow Delano was in a van with photographers Jean Chung, Noriko Hayashi and Nobu Takeo heading north into the disaster zone. With highways literally washed away the normal route north was blocked. “So we hatched a plan to go to the far side, to the Sea of Japan and cut back across into Iwate Prefecture, a series of deep inlets almost like fjords, an area where the effects of the tsunami had been intense,” he says.

Whitlow Delano and his companions arrived in Iwate as it began snowing. Petrol was already in short supply and the lines at gas stations stretched for what seemed like miles. Food stores sat empty and the normal bustle of daily life was absent. They set up base camp in Kitakami, an inland town around 50 kilometres from the coast. Aware they only had enough petrol for one return trip, they hired a taxi fuelled by LPG and began the grim drive towards the coastline uncertain of what they might find. Whitlow Delano was concerned the police wouldn’t allow them access, but they were not stopped at roadblocks.

“The snow was falling, we saw people shuffling around in mud and then suddenly the devastation stretched before us. Cars were in the most bizarre orientation, clinging to telegraph wires and crushed like soft drink cans as if they were nothing…I was like, stop the taxi I have to get out!”

Whitlow Delano quickly realised he was not dressed for the conditions. Within minutes his sneakers were soaked and caked in mud. He was wet and freezing like those around him, but while he was cognizant, others stumbled in shock.

“It was intense on a level that you start thinking anything is possible because what we were seeing was mindboggling. I started asking myself how do I portray this to people who can’t possibly understand the scale of the disaster. The devastation was apocalyptic, some of the cities were literally wiped off the face of the earth.”

Once a great pine forest of 70,000 trees, covered the oceanfront at Takata Matsubara until the 11 March 2011 tsunami swept through decimating them all. Now the sea under cuts the roots beneath their stumps, giving them an other worldly appearance. Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, Japan (C) James Whitlow Delano

Whitlow Delano has covered all manner of natural disasters in his career, but this time it was personal. “I’ve lived in Japan for 20 years, my wife is Japanese, and the people I saw in Iwate reminded me of my family”.

He says the graciousness of the Japanese people allowed him to tell the story at a personal level also. “I was seeing people who a couple of days before were living just like you and me. We are all one very bad day away from being destitute refugees in our own country. So I tried to approach it from that understanding, that point of view. It’s not you or them it’s we. I’m a part of this”.

Black Tsunami proves itself as an important contemporary communication as well as an historical document. Divided into four parts Black Tsunami charts Whitlow Delano’s coverage of the disaster over what he describes as an “intense 18 months”. After the initial trip to Iwate Prefecture Whitlow Delano returned to Tokyo. Soon the damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant and its consequences for the country as a whole began to overshadow the devastation of the tsunami. It was at that point the story shifted for Whitlow Delano from recovery to nuclear disaster.

Cherry blossoms have opened on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan (C) James Whitlow Delano

“Being a child of the Cold War I didn’t want to have anything to do with radiation, I didn’t want to fry my chromosomes,” he says frankly. But as the story unfolded Whitlow Delano had a change of heart and took an assignment from German magazine Der Spiegel. “We educated ourselves, looked at what radiation really meant and determined that in some locations you could sit out for three weeks and get the same level of exposure that you would get from one x-ray. That was a risk I was willing to take.”

Whitlow Delano says at that time the government was posting information daily about radiation levels. This allowed Whitlow Delano to ascertain what he calls “comfortable risk levels”. Although he admits that the information was inconsistent due to shifts in the weather which meant the nuclear “cloud” was not contained to the 20 kilometre no-entry zone.

Despite his early reticence Whitlow Delano felt strongly that the story needed to be told. He armed himself with a Geiger counter and made his way into the no-entry zone, travelling through the forest on foot to avoid the police. He calculated how long he could stay in each area and remain within the radiation exposure safety range.

A charred debris field is all that remains of central Kesennuma, which caught fire after the massive 25m (82 ft.) high tsunami levelled the city. Miyagi, Prefecture, Japan (C) James Whitlow Delano

“Ironically there were some areas outside the no-entry zone that you were allowed to go, but they were far more eradiated. In those places I didn’t stay very long. I’d drive in, do my business and get out.” In the picturesque village of Tsushima he found a hot spot that set his Geiger counter clicking like crazy. “You could sit in that spot for 24 hours and get a year’s dose of radiation. And you were allowed to go there. It has been closed off now, but it was really crazy.”

He says that what he found in these villages that were now deserted was “the story of people who had survived the earthquake, survived the tsunami and through no fault of their own this cloud came over and destroyed their lives. In a single day the onshore winds blew that cloud over some of the most fertile land in Japan”.

Black Tsunami, which is published by FotoEvidence and the result of Kickstarter funding, features 91 black and white photographs that capture the apocalyptic scenes that were left in the tsunami’s wake including those villages emptied by the nuclear disaster.

This formidable tsunami wall was not enough to halt the black wave that hit this village after the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, Toni, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The tsunami was 25m (82 ft.) high, though residents here claim that it was 30 m (almost 100 ft) high. Houses high on the hill (in the top left) were damaged up to the second floor (C) James Whitlow Delano

But beyond the physical devastation, Black Tsunami tells the story of lives irrevocably changed by the ongoing aftermath. In some of the villages affected by the nuclear cloud “people didn’t even have time to take in their washing. There was this sense of life interrupted midstream,” says Whitlow Delano. “I wanted people to understand that these people obviously thought, oh we will be back in a day or two. But six weeks after the tsunami, when I first visited these areas, there was no sign of return”.

Six months later Whitlow Delano returned to find nothing had changed and the clothes he’d seen on the line previously were still there, worn by the weather, once flapping in the breeze and now entangled in weeds. The only change was that brought by the seasons.

Whitlow Delano’s images make us think about the domino effect of this disaster and how life as we know it can be wrenched from us at any moment. While new disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines consume the media, there is an entire population still living with the aftermath of the events of 11 March 2011. Whitlow Delano says he is now concerned with how to visually document the inertia he sees within the country as to what will be done with those large tracts of land that are no longer habitable.

“I live here, I am committed to this country. I’m not Japanese but I’ve been here a long time and there are things that I see as a long-term resident that others don’t. I hope that I am listening to people here and that my work will give a continual and informed point of view,” he concludes.

Black Tsunami
Published by FotoEvidence 2013

All photos (C) James Whitlow Delano

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