Soldiers and a rescue worker carry the body of a resident through Kesennuma City on March 15, 2011, days after the area was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Image © Reuters/Adrees Latif.
Reuters had four staff photographers based in Japan when a magnitude-nine earthquake hit the archipelago, killing an estimated 18,000 people (and rising), making 452,000 homeless and causing a nuclear emergency, which has yet to be stabilised. Within hours of the initial quake the London-based newswire had sent eight more photographers to the scene, says Paul Barker, Asia Editor at Thomson Reuters Pictures, “and we’re now in the process of creating a second wave to reinforce them”.
As the scale of the devastation became apparent, dozens of other photographers packed their bags and headed to Japan too, including Magnum Photos’ Dominic Nahr, VII Photo’s James Natchwey, Paula Bronstein of Getty Images and Associated Press’ David Guttenfelder. Panos Pictures photographer Adam Dean arrived in Tokyo just 20 hours after the earthquake hit – and was shocked by what he found. “I am working with a writer out here and between the two of us, we’ve covered earthquakes in China, Pakistan and Indonesia, cyclones in Burma and tsunamis in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as undercover reporting trips to North Korea and Burma,” he tells BJP. “But from a logistical point of view this has been one of the hardest assignments we’ve had to cover.”
Initially Dean had difficulties hiring a car and finding a fixer prepared to travel north. “In Japan, obviously a wealthy country, it is much harder to find an English speaker who has the financial motivation to come and work in a potentially dangerous environment with journalists,” he says. European Pressphoto Agency photographer Franck Robichon was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit. “Right away, it became difficult to reach the devastation,” he tells BJP. “There were no subway, no trains, no taxi and no more rental cars available. There were huge traffic jams, so I had to walk back home – it took me five hours – and it’s only the day after that I finally took to the road with some Japanese colleagues.” Of course, many roads remained closed due to the destruction, with the highways reserved for emergency vehicles only. “Luckily, we could get an emergency vehicle pass on 13 March, which allowed us to get close to the tsunami-affected zones.”
Picturing the destruction
Robichon has covered several other earthquakes in Japan, but says this time was very different because it was the tsunami that caused most of the damage. “It was unique for me to see all those ships crushed into buildings as well as cars piled up onto houses,” he said. “The coastal towns look like they have been wiped out by a gigantic explosion. The only buildings remaining are the concrete ones.” His first images were mostly of those scenes, he tells BJP.
For an organisation such as Reuters, having a clear strategy was paramount. “The first few days were spent covering the devastation and all that entails, including rescue work, survival, and despair but the main focus was to give the world an idea of the huge scope of the damage and the ensuing tragedy,” says Barker. “The second phase, in addition to continuing our coverage of the devastation, saw us covering the nuclear damage as safely as possible, relying mainly on pictures of people being screened for possible radiation damage and reaction, including shortage of supplies, evacuation centres, blackouts in Tokyo, queues in airports.” After this came the third phase, focusing on “how the survivors in particular and Japan as a whole are moving forward with their lives”.
Creating an intimate story that accurately portrays what the people are going through can be a challenge in these circumstances, says Tokyo-based James Whitlow Delano, “especially given the cultural emphasis on discretion and privacy. Still, even when I may step over this invisible line in this cultural context, the people have been unfailingly gracious”. In fact he’s encountered very few obstacles, even from the Japanese authorities. “It is an uncharacteristically open area down there,” he says. “Access in Japan can often be very difficult, where privacy is carefully guarded and official permission can be hard to come by. But police officers just waved our taxi through to the affected areas. After 17 years of living in Japan, I had imagined a police cordon of the entire affected area, but that never happened.”
If covering the aftermath of an earthquake is challenging, though, it can be near impossible to work when nuclear disaster looms. Robichon was near Fukushima when an explosion rocked the nuclear plant. “I was with Japanese colleagues and it just happened that we were close to the nuclear plant and took pictures of the destruction less than an hour after the first explosion,” he tells BJP. “We had no mobile phone and no access to the internet. At the time, our only source of information was the radio, which didn’t say much about that explosion.” The following day he checked in at a local hospital and found he had been contaminated. “We received six times the normal level of radiation,” he says. “We were given iodine solution to drink and had to throw away our clothes.”
“Unlike war, a typhoon or even the earthquake, you cannot hear, see, taste or feel radiation. It is completely invisible,” says Delano, who decided against covering the nuclear emergency. “I need to see or sense a danger before I can make a sensible risk assessment. I cannot do that in this case.”
Japanese photographer Ko Sasaki agrees. “Right now, I think that the most difficult thing that journalists are facing is the fear – the fear of a possible nuclear reactor meltdown and exposure to radiation as a result. It’s something that really is unimaginable.”
Numerous news organisations have pulled out of Japan altogether and some photographers, including Robichon and Getty Images’ Jason Andrew, have chosen to leave until the situation improves. “I was only in Japan for a few days before my editors at Reportage by Getty Images and I decided it was best to return to New York until the Japanese government got the radiation problem under control,” explains Andrew. “I’ve been to Chernobyl and its surrounding areas, and I have seen what it can do to people. Fukushima may not reach Chernobyl levels but this has been going on since the 11 March and they still don’t have it under control and that’s worrisome.”
When Reuters learned of the possible dangers, it issued strict instructions to its staff. “The safety of our staff is paramount and supersedes everything else,” says Barker. “Without exception, our photographers and multimedia journalists are forbidden to go within any exclusion zone of the reactors. They work under very strict safety rules and are obliged to check in with the security team every hour. Furthermore, all of them also know that at any time they feel uncomfortable for any reason whatsoever they can immediately be pulled off the story and rebase out of the area.”
But despite the dangers, news agencies and photojournalists feel they have a duty to report as much as possible on what could become one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. “I feel that we must tell the story and provide as much information as possible to the people living around the nuclear plant until the last minute, if it comes,” says Sasaki.
Without entering the exclusion zone, Reuters has been illustrating the situation by “photographing radiation screening and safety check-ups”. Dean is also covering the evacuees, who are now living outside the exclusion zone. “When they arrive they are all tested for radioactive contamination, so I have been photographing that process,” he says. “Despite the alarming headlines there is no sense of panic among the Japanese people I have encountered, none of the kind of scenes you might have expected to find.”
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