Noriko Takasugi shows in her photography projects with the people of Fukushima that there’s a different way of showing people deal with unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances
Noriko Takasugi, who shoots for Image Source, has been intimately involved in two projects surrounding the Tsunami and radiation leaks in Fukushima. Both projects use photography to challenge the idea and image of the “victim” in the reportage or documentary photograph.
With eight other photographers, Noriko Takasugi organized the “Fukushima Photo Project”, where people evacuated after the nuclear meltdown where encouraged to explore their experience through photographs. The photography workshops were the vehicle for people to meet, share and exchange thoughts and feelings.
Her work echoes the issue posed by photography critic Susan Sontag in Regarding The Pain of Others. How do the photographic portraits of people in disasters avoid becoming pictured as ‘victims’ in our eyes and their own? How do we as viewers avoid becoming passive and bored by the flow of images of suffering?
“Compassion is an unstable emotion”, writes Sontag. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
Noriko Takasugi’s “Fukushima Samurai – the Story of Identity” pictures the Fukushima evacuees not as victims, but as part of a 1,000 year old folk culture which she celebrates in photographs. Below, this talented young photography graduate tells an emotionally uplifting and creatively rich story about the power of photography, and its ability to inspire people in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
Could you tell us a little about the Fukushima Photo Project and 9 Photographer’s Eyes?
In 2011, along with 8 other photographers and co-organized by the Fukushima prefectural museum, I started the “Fukushima Photo Project”. The project consisted of photography workshops in which evacuees from the reactor exclusion zone were encouraged to record images relevant to them. These images were curated by us and included in our photo exhibition, “9 Photographer’s Eyes”.
The photographers consist of professional, award-winning and amateur photographers based in Tokyo, including Masato Seto who was brought up in Fukushima and a former student of Daido Moriyama, as well as one of the adjudicators of the current Kimura Ihei Awards.
I am interested in the role of art – photography in this case –in this long-term problem for the people of Fukushima. Having organized the first photography workshop from scratch, I found that the opportunity to take pictures of each other could help people to heal as they deal with the harsh situation and concerns about their future. I also found that the workshop activity gave people a chance to talk and connect with each other.
We organised the first workshop and exhibition, “9 Photographers’ Eyes”, in 2011 and have had successive exhibitions in 2012. Recently in February 2013 the Meijyo-kan gallery in Fukushima hosted “Fukushima Samurai – the story of identity” in “9 Photographers’ Eyes Vol.2”.
When I came to the UK for the second time to join the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography course at The London College of Communication, on my wish-list was the idea of holding the exhibition somewhere in London. I contacted several places and it felt like such an achievement that I was able to co-organize an exhibition with the Embassy of Japan in London (“Spare a Thought for Tohoku – Fuksushima Photo Project”), at the same time as we were holding an exhibition in Meijokan Gallery in Minamisoma city in Fukushima.
Your “Fukushima Samurai – the story of identity” was part of your graduate degree show? What was the response from your lecturers and people who visited the show?
My final project for the MA continued the theme to which I have devoted my career – capturing the essence of Japanese identity with particular emphasis on the lives of the survivors of Fukushima. London is an amazing city of diversity, one of it’s biggest attractions for me and why I came here to study.
The lecturers liked the fact that the images are very different from the disaster photos of 3.11 which the media has covered extensively since then. I was honored that they gave me the end wall of the exhibition hall so that I could expand my printing plan and make a big print of a samurai (a 2.7m × 2.7m print and four 1.5m × 1.5m prints).
I was especially pleased that many young Japanese students told me that the images were strong and that they were encouraged by them. I also felt relieved when the people who were originally from Fukushima appreciated my photos and told me their story in London.
What did you shoot with and how did you shoot the locations?
For my final project, I focused on the people who were once residents in the 20km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They are no longer allowed to live there but they can now enter the area during the day. I photographed each of them in the places that had a personal meaning to them, reviving their memories of home.
Between the summer and autumn of 2012, I spent an intense period of time with the Nomaoi Samurai warrior in Minamisoma city in Fukushima, their current location, next to Odaka-ku village where most of them originally lived before it was cordoned off due to radiation.
About 2,000 people died in Fukushima, 80 per cent of whom were from the area where the Soma Nomaoi is held. While the coastal residential area of Odaka-ku was completely washed away by the tsunami, the remaining 13,000 residents of Odaka-ku were forced to relocate the day after the disaster, without having the situation explained in detail, with many losing their houses, land and jobs indefinitely because the area was designated a Caution Zone with a 20km radius.
Despite the harsh conditions, loss of lives and loss of hundreds of their horses and much of their armory, the majority of the surviving Nomaoi Samurai warriors agreed to hold the gathering in 2011, just a few months after the disaster. “People wanted hope after the disaster. We decided to hold the event observing the tradition as much as we can,” said Nobuo, aged 70 and one of the heads of Soma Nomaoi 2012.
In April 2012, about a year later, the government rezoned the area including Odaka-ku, but people are still leading the lives of evacuees because all residents of Odaka-ku are not allowed to stay overnight in their homes. In this area my geiger counter measured a radiation level of 0.15- 1.5 μSv/h. (about 5 – 50 times higher compared to the level of Tokyo where I live).
Many young people who lost jobs after the disaster now work for local companies that engage disaster waste processing work and decontamination work. Having spent time with the Nomaoi Samurai warriors, I believe the Soma Nomaoi is not just an event but also an embodiment of their identity and fight for survival. Here, the samurai way of life, “Bushido”, corresponds to the concept of chivalry. This sense of identity represents not only how, but also why, they live. Their choices and values can be compared to those of the proud Samurai of a bygone era; in other words, echoing the age-old Japanese mentality, where a sense of identity is based on a sense of honor and commitment to their local environment, community, family and friends. Despite the radiation, they have stubbornly sustained their determination to carry out their duty to their fellow men, animals and culture. I believe this kind of mentality still remains somehow in the identity of Japanese people today.
The project portrays not only the visual identity of the Samurai warrior and the Japanese people, but also their spirit and emotional expression. The inner protective and resurgent strength of mankind that emerges in adverse conditions is an intrinsic part of their character. It helped them survive the disaster but also makes them more vulnerable. In that sense, I believe that these portraits are not “their” disaster photos but “my” or “our (as a Japanese, or as a mankind)” life portraits.
How did the individual Nomaoi Samurai react to participating your project? And on seeing the final results?
I was pleased that I could send my big prints to the exhibition in Fuksuhima as well. Having been to the exhibition in Fukushima, one of the Samurai whose portrait I took emailed me (he was in Fukushima, I was in London) to say that he was deeply moved by the feeling that his portraits, my photographs, are connecting people in the UK and Japan.
He told me that he couldn’t explain it but he thought about his friends, families, bonds, and was moved to tears and told me thanks. When I first got the email, I was moved to tears too since I was not sure if my photos had been going the right way even if I believed they were. Just as people have historically debated the impact of documentary photography, the 3.11 photos are very sensitive.
Another Samurai left a message declaring that he will protect his three children and at the same time make his dreams come true. If my photos were one of the things that helped him think he could realize this, there is nothing more that I could feel happy with as a photographer.
It received good coverage in the UK, was it covered in Japan? What’s next for the Fukushima Photo Project?
My project was featured in The Independent on Sunday on 10th March this year, for the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. This photobook was selected for the E photobook show in the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton in February, and the original was sold privately before the exhibition. I was very pleased with those opportunitines since my project almost only has meaning and value when seen by people.
I have been busy showing my story in London where I studied and graduated from Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, the University of the Arts London since January 2013. I have only one body and I was thinking to do it in Japan for the timing of the season of Soma Nomaoi in the end of July.
To view more of Noriko’s work, visit her website.