Shameless plug, I know, but this doesn’t happen every day. A few of my photos are on display at the Konica-Minolta Gallery in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Please drop by if you are in the area … admission is free.
Some of the photographers on display are Days Photojournalism Awards first prize winner Jan Dago and Adam Dean, among other award-winning snappers. I was awarded with a prize by special jury for my suicide forest photos, three of which are on display in the gallery sandwiched between those depicting the Pakistan floods by Andrees Latif and others about maternal mortality in Sierra Leone by Jean Chung. I really don’t mind rubbing shoulders with those two.
A gallery of the suicide forest photos can be found here. Some people might find a few of these shots a little disturbing.
April 20. Went on an assignment for the Times with Japan correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry to the evacuation zone around the No. 1 Fukushima nuclear power plant. Another slightly unnerving trip into the zone — my fourth in total — with the only sign of life being abandoned pets, including thoroughbred dogs and a beautiful but unhealthily thin Siamese cat, and cattle.
We entered from Iwaki in the south and found that the police at the control point at the entrance to the zone were a little more fastidious than on previous visits. We first visited a community that had been hit pretty badly by the tsunami. ‘(Contrary to popular belief, the people of Fukushima have not only been affected by the nuclear power plant and in fact if anything the damage caused by the March 11 quake is more noticeable in these parts than in anywhere I have visited in Iwate or Miyagi.) There was a terrible stench and later found the source — dead cattle among the rubble. Inside cars parked by the side of a road men in white suits were taking a break from the terrible work with which they are charged.
Other than that there was no sign of human life. Outside one house I found a tray of three shriveled up turnips, or carrots; outside another house a tray of small, blackened potatoes. The front door of one house a little further on had been left open, shoes in the entranceway were scattered about — very unusual for a Japanese home. Inside, the living room and kitchen were a mess. Everywhere there was signs of people having left in a hurry — no, in a panic.
There are other parts of the day that I’d prefer not to revisit here, but later on we came across a 35-year-old woman — a former worker at the No. 2 Fukushima power plant — who had come back to her home, which is located along a road famed for its magnificent cherry trees, to collect some belongings. She expressed dismay at the damage to the plant, saying she had truly believed that it was built to withstand such a disaster. “I have no intention of returning,” she added tearfully, after taking out her phone and snapping off what could turn out to be her last photos of those lovely cherry trees, now in full bloom, that go on for several hundred meters, forming an incredible tunnel of pink.
Little did we know at the time that the following day the Japanese government would make it illegal to enter this dead zone, though such a move had been rumored. It seems an odd time to impose this ban — enforced by threat of financial penalty (¥100,000) and lengthy detention. The radiation levels are no higher than before — in fact they are probably lower — and the police report that there are only 60 people who have chosen to remain in their homes inside the zone anyway.
But there are those who try to sneak in. We came across one young cherry blossom enthusiast who had decided to come and take some photos of the flowering trees in Tomioka. He was concerned he said, but wanted to see the famed blossom here, before jumping in his car and driving off in search of a point from which he could get a better view of the leaking power plant, about 4 km away in Okuma.
On a personal note: Perhaps the worst part of all of this is the desperation of my friends in Fukushima — the prefecture I spent my first three years in Japan. Ironically, the people of Okuma have relocated to Aizu-Wakamatsu (it’s town offices have been shifted to a girls’ high school there as well), where I spent what were possibly the best 2 years of my time here. My best friend there tells me that the fields have been cleared of significant levels of radiation. But this is still Fukushima Prefecture and anything with Fukushima attached to it from hereon is not going to be taken lightly.
For many many years to come.
I made a video during two of the trips to the zone and it has been uploaded to YouTube by Global Radio News here