When the Camera Speaks

When the camera speaks, what are photographers trying to tell us? What do they want us to feel?
Why did they choose photography to express themselves?
Leading photographers share their thoughts about their craft.

Five years down the road after the big quake

Interview: October 30, 2015;
Posted: March 14, 2016

Photojournalist Natsuki Yasuda reports on wars, disasters and poverty in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Japan. In 2012 she won the eighth Younosuke Natori Photography Award for her work on Uganda's HIV-AIDS orphans. For a second organized study tour of the Tohoku region (sponsored by Olympus and Studio AFTERMODE) in August 2015 she invited ten high school students to the disaster area. The photographic picture book, Sore demo, umi e — Rikuzentakata in ikiru ("And still, to the sea — life in Rikuzentakata") (Poplar) featuring a fisherman and his grandson she met in Rikuzentakata, is due for release in February 2016.

A true life of plenty from the sea

Almost five years have now passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. Photojournalist Natsuki Yasuda headed to the Iwate town of Rikuzentakata shortly after the disaster and has continued to cover the area ever since. At this interview Yasuda showed us some of the photos she has taken there over the past couple of years, and shared her thoughts on the Tohoku region and its people.

Q: Thank you for showing us so many of your Rikuzentakata photos (see PHOTO GALLERY at bottom of page.) There are some fascinating images here of residents who depend on the sea for their living.

Yasuda: This is a small town on Rikuzentakata's Hirota Peninsula. The little boy's name is Shuusei—they call him Shuppe—and here we have Shuppe and his granddad. I've been going there over the years to look at what it means for humans and nature to share the same space.

Q: How long have you been photographing this pair?

Yasuda: I first met Shuppe and his grandfather in March 2012, a year after the quake. I'd heard there was a particular fisherman highly respected in the local community, and went to meet him. Up to then I'd focused mainly on the town center, but about six months after the disaster I started to catch glimpses of fishermen busy in what little was left of their former work sites, doing maintenance on the port and so on. Upon my arrival in Rikuzentakata, I had assumed people would feel resentment toward the sea, so I simply wanted to know why these people would go back to the ocean after all that had happened. This led me to Shuuichi Sugano, Shuppe's grandfather.

Q: Was Mr. Sugano himself damaged by the quake?

Yasuda: For a fishing family, loss of a boat means loss of livelihood, so boats must be protected at all costs. The custom of "okidashi" or going far out to sea after an earthquake to avoid a tsunami is part of this, and the day of the big quake, Sugano-san headed out to sea before the tsunami engulfed the town. He was communicating with others by radio, and says he knew when those behind him had been swallowed up by the wave. Looking back he saw an island by the name of Tsubakijima being inundated. The hamlet in Nesaki where Shuuichi lives learned its lesson long ago, and all the homes there are built on high ground. Before heading out to sea Shuuichi told his family they'd be safe if they stayed at home, but he confided he was terrified that a wave this big might even reach them.

Q: What are your impressions after almost four years covering the area?

Yasuda: I now have a powerful sense of how the sea forms the lifeblood of this town. The way people share their catch here is a revelation. For example, if you go to someone's house during the ikura (salmon roe) season, you'll be served a full bowl of ikura. Not rice with ikura on top: just a great bowl filled with ikura. When sea urchins are plentiful, a plate piled high will appear. You assume it's to share, then the host says "No, no, there's a plate like that for everyone" (laughs). When the fleet comes in and the catch is brought ashore, suddenly it seems to be all over town. Even those who don't work in the fishing industry start to get fidgety, having heard that sea urchin is on the menu tonight, and head home earlier than usual.

Elderly ladies in the prefab temporary housing told me that before the disaster, they hardly ever needed to buy food. People would share their catch, and in return they would give them cabbages and other vegetables grown in the plot out behind their house. To me that's a true life of plenty. So the people of this town know the sea as something that still confers blessings, despite destroying their town.

"Hashigo toramai" and the significance of festivals

Q: These shots of a festival staged under brilliant blue skies are striking too. Tell us about the festival.

Yasuda: It's a festival at Tsuruki Shrine, held every four years and famous for a ritual known as "hashigo toramai". Two men inside the tiger costume climb a ladder about 20m high. At the top, the head of the tiger may suddenly droop: this means that one of the men inside has his legs hooked over the ladder, and is hanging upside down.

He then pulls himself up solely by his abdominal muscles. The "tiger men" commented that during practice, when still unaccustomed to using their stomach muscles properly, they can get stuck dangling upside down, a scary experience. That's why on the day of the actual festival, the grandparents of these young men keep their eyes firmly fixed on the climbing tiger.

Q: The faces of these young drummers seem as bright as the weather, don't they?

Yasuda: I heard there were some conflicting views when it came to holding this festival. Some in the village asserted that when people are struggling to get back on their feet is not the time for festivals. But others said that this is exactly the sort of time to ensure people have a place to get together.

I'd heard elsewhere that places where there are a lot of disasters also have a lot of festivals. Obviously part of this is to mourn the dead, but there's more to it. They say having a festival means people gather every year, in the process finding out how everyone is coping with life, and who has the strength to pull the group along. Apparently when the quake actually struck, it meant people were able to respond quickly: this person picked to play a certain role, someone else fetching a piece of equipment from where they remembered it being stored, that sort of thing.

Photos as letters to the future

Q: How did you come to report on Rikuzentakata?

Yasuda: My reasons are personal, so if you bear with me I'll start from the beginning. My husband's family were from Morioka, and my father-in-law was employed at a prefectural hospital. He was transferred to Rikuzentakata's Takata Hospital five years prior to the quake. My husband does the same work as me, and on March 11, 2011 (we weren't yet married at the time) he was in Zambia, and I was in the Philippines. He made it home first and headed to Rikuzentakata, and I followed soon after. I knew the situation was bad, but I suppose somewhere in my heart I believed they would have escaped the devastation and survived. But the sight of the whole town swept away, those huge piles of rubble, left me lost for words. Dad was on the fourth floor of the hospital. The water rose up to his neck but amazingly, he survived. But we had no idea where my mother-in-law was. They found her a month later, nine kilometers upriver, still clutching the leashes of her two dogs. She was a sign language interpreter, so whenever the tremor warning siren sounded, she would immediately run to those who couldn't hear. To me this town seems to hold the life of my mother-in-law, who lived for others to the very end. It is this family connection that brings me back here again and again.

Q: Reporting on the situation in disaster areas is vital, but at the same time, didn't you hesitate a little before starting to take pictures?

Yasuda: It all came to pass quite naturally, in the end. Initially I fretted that I had to do something— anything— but at the same time I was also unsure what would be acceptable to put out there. But on each visit, I kept coming across the same faces, getting to know people better. And as we spent time together, eventually it was no big deal to click off a shot or two.

The head of the local neighborhood committee for the emergency housing precinct was very helpful, and we had some good heart-to-heart discussions. It was his opinion that the ideal time to take photos would've been straight after the disaster occurred.But right after the quake and tsunami, the fire brigade were having to carry out the bodies of people they knew, and at that stage may well have punched anyone they spotted wandering around with a camera. Now though, even the people of the town find it hard to recall how the landscape changed from day to day, just how far up the wave came, how much rubble there was, how people survived under those circumstances.

So indeed, it might have been good to have a photographic record of that time, if for no other reason than to help the next generation if they have to survive a similar ordeal. I'd always thought a photojournalist should strive to communicate now what is happening now, but that's not the only role of photography. Perhaps rather than telling a story immediately, photographs can also serve as a kind of letter to the future.

Driven to tell the whole story

Q: You give talks on the Great East Japan Earthquake. During one of these talks, accompanied by a slide show, the sheer reality of three photos taken by your father-in-law on the fourth floor of the hospital as the tsunami approached seemed to send a shock wave through the audience.

Yasuda: For my father-in-law to leave me those photos was amazing. For one thing, I was a recent addition to the family; for another, I did not actually witness the tsunami in person. And so there's always this sense of guilt, this wondering how much I personally have a right to tell. Yet the inevitability of those guilty feelings is another thing I've learned from the disaster. Then in July this year, while staying with relatives in Tochigi, father died suddenly. He was always talking about returning to Rikuzentakata, but severe PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) had left him unable to control his body the way he wanted: sometimes you would try to approach him and his hands would start to shake and his breathing became labored. After he passed away, the local newspaper in Rikuzentakata carried an appealing article on him, and we received many letters from his former patients after they read the article.

They were a very close couple, with a long-lasting marriage after finding each other at age 18. My mother-in-law's name was Junko, and right after the quake my father-in-law told me that if Junko had perished, he had no reason to live. I told him that having grown up in a single-parent household myself, he was the only person I'd ever been able to call father, and pleaded with him to stay alive. He replied that my words had given him strength, and he would do his best to survive. I still can't believe he's gone. The connection I have with Rikuzentakata was a gift from this man, my father, and maintaining that connection is the very least we the living can do.

Interview and text: Koji Okano