The Unseen

About two years after I moved to my husband’s hometown, Sendai, in the Tohoku area of Japan, a huge earthquake and tsunami hit there on March 11, 2011. We had to go to his parents’ house to check their safety, line up to get drinking water for three hours, and procure food. I never even thought about going to photograph.

Meanwhile, I got a call from Kochi Newspaper asking me to go to the tsunami-hit area and shelters, if possible, to photograph. I didn’t have a car. However, my photographer friend, Christoph Bangert, drove to my apartment directly from Narita airport. That made me think I might have to go. I asked him for a ride. He told me, “It must be harder for you than me because you live here. But because you live here, you should look at what happened. Let’s just go there together tomorrow and if it is too hard for you, you can stop.” I made up my mind.

When I went to the devastated area on March 15, I had no idea what to expect, what to photograph or whether it was the right thing to make pictures there. I just pushed the shutter as I was praying. Everything was destroyed. Small towns became wilderness areas wiped out by the power of water. Debris was everywhere. Sadness was everywhere.

When I got back home at night the gas service was still off, so there was no hot water. March in Tohoku is still pretty cold. I washed away the dust from the debris that was flying around in the damaged area with an icy cold shower. Once after seeing the chaos, I did not complain about my situation. I decided to return to that area the next day. After that, I kept going back to photograph until two weeks before my first baby was born in September 2012.

I saw the changing seasons. The mountains of debris became bigger and bigger. Everything in sight was still broken. I eventually noticed something beautiful there that could never be broken.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.
— Law of Conservation of Energy

Does this mean that this place is full of energy from all the people whose lives were suddenly taken by the tsunami? Although their bodies are gone, has the energy of their lives changed and is it still with us? As I walk all around there, I make pictures with a hope that I can feel their energy; they were there and they are still there in those broken and abandoned places, in the radiance of the sky and the ocean, and also in my own everyday life.

You-who-are-alive will be reborn as you-who-are-dead and will return to me again. You will not disappear, but quietly revive as the dead.
—Philosopher Masahiro Morioka in Seija to sisha o tsunagu [Connecting the Living and the Dead]