From a talk presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 22, 2015
Artist Talk: Personal Landscapes
By Naoya Hatakeyama, November 2017
First, I want to say “arigato” to those from the United States who extended their warm helping hands to the victims of the Great East Japan earthquake. For example, U.S. forces based in Japan went to devastated areas in the Tohoku region immediately after the tsunami disaster and joined with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to carry out rescue operations and provide support for those stricken by the disaster. This mission was called “Operation Tomodachi.” My sister still keeps a ready-to-eat U.S. military ration in a moss green pouch that she was given at that time.
Now, a series of my photographs called Rikuzentakata is included in the current exhibition In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11. I would like to talk about the circumstances behind these photographs in the hope of deepening understanding of the exhibition as a whole.
Rikuzentakata, the town where I was born and raised in the Tohoku region, was hit by the tsunami, and I have been going there to photograph ever since. I lost family there, our home was carried away, and the town I remember fondly has disappeared. So I feel that I was very much within the disaster.
However, in the eyes of the local government, I am an outsider. In order to facilitate coming in and out of the disaster zone from Tokyo, I went to the city hall to apply for a disaster victim certificate, but I was told, “We cannot issue a certificate to those whose current address is not registered here.” In other words, “Because you live in Tokyo and not here, by law, you are not regarded as a victim of the disaster.” To be sure, when I faced the actual “disaster victims” in my hometown, who narrowly escaped death after being swallowed by the black water, who were left without homes and lost their jobs, I had to admit I am not one of them.
At such times, I’d wonder about the scope of a disaster like this. I might think that I was within this event, but someone would tell me, “No, you are on the outside.” I’d resign myself to that, when someone else would sympathize with me and say, “It must have been hard on you.” I have referred to being “outside” and “within” the event, but the boundary between outside and inside sways widely depending on the circumstance, on who you’re talking to, and on the distance.
For the past four years, the most troubling problem for me while photographing has been this issue of the swaying “outside/within” boundary and the issue of how others apply this “outside/within” to me—or in a word, the problem of positionality. Compared to the weight of the disaster, this may be no more than a psychological issue, but because it is a psychological issue, it creates a variety of pressures among people, and it becomes an important issue when thinking about how a disaster is expressed.
For example, let’s say a photographer I don’t know is standing close to me in the disaster zone. He and I are both taking photographs of the foundation of a house that was swept away by the tsunami. Our photographs may come out looking similar. But suppose I point at the foundation and tell him, “My home used to stand here.” What would happen? The difference in our reasons for taking the photographs becomes clear. My reason is “personal.” His reason is not “personal.” I am “within,” and he comes from “outside.” The moment he discovers that, he may no longer feel comfortable and decide to stop taking photographs.
Because my words that convey a simple fact influence the action of another, it can be said that those words definitely have a certain kind of power. This is the power of being “within,” the power of being “personal.” I must quickly add that this power is not something I have obtained personally, but rather is a power given to me by certain events; it is not a power attached to me, but a power that envelops my surroundings. In that respect, this “power” is only a relative thing and not something one can be proud of or enjoy exercising. It is something that forces me to be ever vigilant to ensure that I do not express it carelessly.
One cannot identify this power just by looking. It can only be conveyed with words. I would like to talk about my photography from the perspective of the complex psychological experience of this notion of power. This is the meaning of the title of today’s talk, “Personal Landscapes.”
To digress somewhat, I feel that this problem of “outside/within” is always attached to the act of photographing. Whenever I hold a camera up to a subject and press the shutter button, I feel as if my body is being forcibly pushed “outside” the reality that contains the subject before my eyes. I sometimes even think that in order to remain “within” the reality, I would have to discard my camera and talk to or feel the subject. This suspicion of photography does not specifically concern the disaster, but because this is an exhibition of photography, I feel that this notion needs to be kept in the backs of our minds.
Rikuzentakata is located in Iwate Prefecture, about ninety-five miles north of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. Four years ago, on March 11, 2011, an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude struck off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. It is considered to be the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history after earthquakes in Chile, Alaska, and Sumatra. Thirty minutes after the earthquake struck, Rikuzentakata was hit by a historically unprecedented seventeen-meter-high tsunami.
It is said that the total death toll from 3/11 was over 18,000, and most of those who died were drowned by the tsunami. Of the total death toll, about 1,700, or almost ten percent of those who perished, were from my hometown, Rikuzentakata. It had a population of around 23,000, and a relatively large river, called Kesengawa, flowed through the town. At the mouth of the river is a five-kilometer-wide alluvial plain, where many of the people lived. This was the reason the death toll was higher than in other nearby towns and villages, where there is less flatland. My mother, who turned eighty-four years old on that very day of March 11, was among those who died.
My mother lived with my older sister, but my sister worked as a teacher at an elementary school built on high ground, and she was saved from death. The family home she had rebuilt for herself, my mother, and me was swept away by the waves just six months after they began living in it.
Thinking back about how I was four years ago, it is hard to believe that I am here in the U.S., now calm and speaking in front of all of you. Back then, it was all I could do to think about today and tomorrow. It was impossible for me to even imagine four years later, which seemed like a distant future.
Although I was born and raised in Rikuzentakata, I left home to attend university, and I have lived in Tokyo ever since graduating, when I was twenty-six years old. It is very common for those of us born in the provinces to come to Tokyo for university or for other reasons and to end up staying there for years. When I ask someone I meet for the first time in Tokyo, “Where were you born?” many times the names of provincial regions come up. This has been the case since the war, especially during the period of high economic growth in the sixties, when every year a million people moved from all over Japan to the big cities to find jobs.
Although I have been living in Tokyo, I would go back to Rikuzentakata a few times every year, at New Year’s or for the summer memorial service for our ancestors. I’d see my mother, my sister, relatives, and friends. I also enjoyed walking around the small town, recalling my childhood days.
I am a photographer, but I mainly take photographs of landscapes and architecture, and I do not take many snapshots in my day-to-day life. But after around 2000, when I passed the age of forty, I began to casually take photographs of trivial things whenever I returned to Rikuzentakata. As I added years, the adults around me naturally got older. I would get phone calls from my mother, and often she would tell me that a relative or one of our neighbors had died. The population was declining. There were fewer young people, and the town no longer had the vitality it had when I was a child.
I began to casually photograph Rikuzentakata, especially the Kesen-cho area, where I was born, with a feeling of nostalgia. I would return to Tokyo, print the photographs, pin them up on my studio wall, and gaze at them. I’d get lost in reverie, looking at the photographs and thinking about the wonders and cruelty of the passing of time and what was to come for my family and me. These photographs are not the type of photographs that I usually exhibit at galleries and museums; rather, they are “personal” photographs, not intended to be shown to others. When I was through looking at them, I would put them in a box and store them away on a shelf.
But after March 11, 2011, these photographs in the box began to hold completely different meaning. People I had photographed by chance had died. A girl who had been playing the flute at a festival became a girl without a father. Bridges and buildings in the photographs had been swept away by the tsunami, and the festival float was also gone. After our photo albums, filled with memories, disappeared in the tsunami, I realized that images of the peaceful town from the past remained only in my mind and in the few photographs I had taken.
In the fall of 2011, I was given the opportunity to hold an exhibition called Natural Stories at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography [now Tokyo Photographic Art Museum]. Preparation for this exhibition started two years in advance, and I chose nature as the theme because I had recently had an exhibition at another museum that focused on cities and architecture. Of course, photographs of Rikuzentakata were not in the initial list for the exhibition.
The exhibition was held six months after 3/11, and I decided hastily to incorporate landscapes from Rikuzentakata after the tsunami as well as images of the peaceful town before the tsunami. At the time, this was the most urgent matter to me, and given the reality of the disaster and the loss to my hometown, it would have been unnatural not to address this matter.
But members of the museum staff and some others voiced their concern that the photographs of Rikuzentakata had a distinctive quality that would seem out of place in the context of my other work. Some suggested that the “personal” photographs would interrupt the flow of the exhibition of my highly abstract photographs. Others thought that these “personal” photographs would appear too graphic and evocative just six months after the disaster. And, more fundamentally, could these “personal” photographs be called “works of art”? These opinions caused me to reflect on my work.
Of course, we all know examples of exceptional photographers for whom “personal” photography is the core of their photographic expression. There are great photographers whose subject is family or friends or local society, who refuse to draw a line between their personal life and art when they work. But I have never been that type of photographer. Moreover, I have always kept my distance from such photography.
Not only am I a photographer who does not take snapshots, I usually do not take photographs of people. Some may find it odd for a photographer to say, “I do not take photographs of people,” but those of you who frequent museums will understand that such photographers are not unusual, historically.
When I am exposed to the feelings that photographs of people engender—the uniqueness of a certain moment at a certain place, and the atmosphere of “once and only,” I feel hopelessly sad and feel like crying. And because I don’t want to cry, the least I can do is avoid taking such photographs myself.
It was something of a contradiction, then, when I gradually began to take photographs of my mother with her bent back, children at festivals, or friends rowing boats on the river. These were “personal” photographs that I did not intend to show anyone, and I told myself that it was okay to look at them and cry once in a while. But after the tsunami, I showed these very photographs in public, at a museum.
Suppose there was an artist who stubbornly believed that the breakdown of consistency in a style of work means defeat to the artist, so he should not depart from what he usually does. Suppose he stuck to this belief, even in the face of such an overwhelming event. I personally would not want to go near such an artist. Fundamentally, what artists show us is not how they engage their own works of art, but how they engage their own world. I think that notions like “consistency of style” are insignificant compared to the magnitude of an event like 3/11. Do we really need art that can sustain itself only by insisting on “consistency”?
My snapshots do not provide a comprehensive picture of what the town looked like before, so in that sense, they are not complete as a record of the town. But if one looks at them now that the town has disappeared, I think one can sense the atmosphere of the town back then.
At the exhibition, I showed scenes of Kesen-cho before the tsunami struck as a slideshow rather than as prints. Viewing a slideshow of the photographs is similar to thinking back on the past. Scenes in our memory appear and disappear; they are fleeting, and there is no intense movement as there is in a movie.
Sixty prints were mounted on the opposite wall, showing scenes of the destruction of the town after the tsunami (fig. 2). I had printed them hurriedly in the darkroom between my many trips from Tokyo to Rikuzentakata, then framed and mounted them as they were. For the slideshow, a video monitor was embedded in the wall, with a spotlight on it to make it look as if a single print was mounted. Some viewers were surprised to see that the picture in the frame changed before they noticed it.
The reaction of the viewers varied. One even told me, “I was never interested in your work before, but I thought the pictures in the slideshow were good.” The world is always beyond my comprehension.
A publishing company took notice of my exhibition, and the following year I was able to publish a book called Kesengawa, which had photographs of before and after the tsunami. The editor requested an essay for the book, so I started to write, thinking back to the days after the earthquake struck. Because the trains stopped running for several days, I rode a motorcycle from Tokyo to Rikuzentakata. The memory was so strong that I wrote a detailed account of the trip, and the essay grew longer than I intended. The book designer used quick wit and interspersed the essay among the photographs, resulting in an unusual book where photographs and words are interwoven.
The essay I wrote starts like this:
Something is happening. Not here, somewhere far away, in that familiar place, something huge is taking place. I cannot see what is going on from where I am now. I wait a little, in the faint hope that someone might be able to tell me something, but it seems that no one can do anything for me. I have no other choice than to go to somewhere where I will be able to see what is happening. It will take time, probably several days, to reach my destination. But in a few days I should be able to see. And to understand. What has happened to my town, my home, my family, I should finally be able to understand everything. However, for the few days that the journey will take, I will still have seen nothing. I must move forward without knowing anything.
After this, the description of my trip to Rikuzentakata continues at length. The photographs of the once peaceful town interspersed with the text are also scenes of my hometown that came to mind as I rode my motorcycle north through the falling snow (see fig. 3). Then there is one blank page, followed by scenes of the town that has completely changed, and no text accompanies these photographs (see fig. 4).
I feel that I would need hours to talk about this one book. How, in the end, should I see this series of photographs?
One thing I can say for sure is that they cannot be called a “project.” Curators often ask, “What is your new project about?” as if it is a greeting of some sort. But right now, I am not able to clearly answer such a question. It is not possible for anyone to conceptualize or to plan photographs like the ones you are seeing now as something to “pro-ject.”
These photographs were created as a result of my getting involved in an unexpected, unfortunate event. Because of this, curators would tell me, “I cannot comment on your photographs of Rikuzentakata.” Indeed, it would miss the mark to say words often used in criticism of work or projects—such as interesting/boring or good/bad or beautiful or powerful—in commenting on these photographs of mine. It may even be that some feel it is morally reprehensible to make such comments.
When the subject of the photographs involves many deaths, towns that were swept away and vanished, the sorrow of those who survived, the hardship and worry, it becomes difficult to use words that are often used to critique work, like interesting or boring. I discussed earlier the comparison between me and another photographer taking photographs of the foundation of my family home, and perhaps a similar thing occurs when one is viewing the photographs. There is a peculiar power surrounding these photographs that prohibits one from making a casual evaluation. Even if this was not my intention, the viewer must feel a sense of unease toward this power. I think it is not easy to analyze this power.
Why is it that photographs that are called “projects” or “works of art” trigger an abundance of words, to the point of verbosity, in contrast to this uncomfortable silence? This question would not have occurred to me before now.
To be honest, since the tsunami I think I have been photographing without wondering whether my photographs are “works of art” or not. I have been photographing with the sense that nothing can be done, even if the photographs give viewers a sense of unease and only produce silence, or deny the possibility of evaluation.
I am not taking photographs in Rikuzentakata for media such as newspapers or magazines. I am not photographing because someone has asked me to, nor is it for art galleries or museums. There is no point in showing these photographs to those who were affected by the tsunami. But then, I am not making these photographs for myself either.
It may sound a bit strange, but from the day after the tsunami to the present, I’ve had the feeling that someone is demanding something of me. That “demand” doesn’t seem to come from a personal place—in other words, from within “myself”—but rather from outside myself. I am actually photographing with the feeling that I am responding to that “demand.” In this, I feel it is an act of “response,” in the true meaning of the word.
The thing I am responding to is definitely not the tsunami. It is impossible and nonsensical to “respond” to a tsunami. What I am responding to is a “someone,” with a voice that is calling upon me. It could be my mother, acquaintances, my dear friends and their families, mentors I respect, or my schoolmates who have died. I cannot clearly explain who the “someone” is. But it is clear to me that the “someone” is in the sphere occupied by love and respect.
That may have be an overblown, theological-sounding way of stating things. But upon seeing the word respond in the subtitle for this exhibition, I felt reassured and encouraged, because response conveys a deeper truth than the word project has over the past four years.
The sensation of “response” that welled up inside me perhaps suggests the possibility that things seen as personal might become social things. For this very reason, I imagine that the word responsibility might derive from the words possibility of response.
Furthermore, this raises the question of whether it is possible to reinterpret the entire act of “responding” and to organize it as a project”—in other words, to incorporate it into a method of “art.” If it is possible, those curators who have said “I cannot comment” might be able to talk about it more freely. But thinking more deeply about this issue will have to wait for another occasion.
In regards to the “Landscape” aspect of the title of my talk, I should address it further by showing recent scenes of Rikuzentakata.
For example, if I were to continue my earlier discussion and say, “My home was at the foot of the rainbow,” we could analyze the typically unspeakable atmosphere that attaches to this “personal landscape.” I am sure that my words would change the expression of this very photograph. Is the value or the significance of this landscape thus determined in a linguistic manner, and not in a visual manner? Am I able to show my “personal landscape” without the aid of words, as many artists do in a museum?
Other topics include actual large-scale civil engineering projects, the problem of local residents losing their grasp of time, and the issue of how to preserve remains from the disaster for the sake of future imagination. There is the question of why the lone, majestic pine tree that survived from among seventy thousand other trees had to be preserved as a monument at a cost of 1.3 million dollars.
This is from my recent exhibition at Nikon Salon in Tokyo, earlier in April (fig. 6). Sixty-three landscapes were exhibited on the wall. Some of these are also exhibited here in Boston. Since the tsunami, I have been traveling between Tokyo and Rikuzentakata pretty much every month and have been photographing mainly landscapes. In the beginning, the terrible extent of the disaster and anger and sadness at the destruction of the places of my memory were the reasons for photographing the area. These reasons can definitely be said to be “personal.”
Earlier, I mentioned that the center of Rikuzentakata was on the plain created by the river. In some of these photographs, it is possible to see how the town was built at pretty much the same elevation as the river. About half of the houses in the entire town, including mine, were built on this low land. When I recall how no one, including myself, raised a doubt about living on such low land, I feel a lump in my throat.
Many of those who lost their homes but survived the tsunami and now live in temporary shelters on school grounds used to live on this plain. Will they return there? No, many of them say they do not wish to live in the lowland anymore. They think that since they have lost everything, they would rather start anew in a place where they can feel safe. The national government and the prefecture and town administrations are all proactively trying to build a safe new town so that the tragedy is not repeated in the future.
This new community development specifically involves building residential areas on higher ground. Simply put, the idea is to cut into the surrounding mountains and create flat surfaces to build on, while taking the excavated earth to the lowland to raise its surface level. In the mountainous region where I come from, this is the only way to acquire flat, level land at higher elevations. In addition to this development, construction of a 12.5-meter-high breakwater is about to start, to prepare for another big tsunami that might hit the region in the future.
The fact that the scale of the civil engineering works is huge means that they will affect the surroundings. With the rise in construction costs and shortage of workers, excessive cost and time are being spent on building homes. People are waiting for the completion of land development for home construction, which could take upwards of five to six years from the year of the tsunami. But as they wait for its completion, they age five to six years at the same time. If they are elderly people, they will hesitate to build new homes. I am also allotted a plot of land on higher ground, which is reduced in area from the original plot, but I am still undecided as to what to do about it.
The nature of the landscape in Rikuzentakata is changing. I began to feel this strongly in the latter part of 2013. When the ruins are cleared, the original blocks are filled and new roads are built on top of them, and it becomes difficult to recall the time before the tsunami from the landscape. The new townscape is making a clean break with the memories of the past. There are now far fewer “memories” in my photographs. Rather, there are more photographs of huge civil engineering “projects,” and as a result I am losing my confidence about continuing to call these landscapes “personal.”
Since the eighties, I have been photographing limestone mines all over Japan (see fig. 7). These photographs were made into a series called Lime Works, and when I visited Rikuzentakata recently, I was surprised to see that the landscape there was starting to resemble the mines I know so well. But this is naturally so, because the method of carving out the mountains is exactly the same method used in open-pit mining. The heavy equipment like dump trucks comes from the same manufacturers as that used at the mines. Explosives are used to mine limestone, and in Rikuzentakata too, explosives are used every day to break up thick limestone bedrock deep in the mountains. At the mines, I often watched the equipment that grinds rock into small pieces and watched the end of the conveyor belt drop earth as it moved. The scenes I encounter now in Rikuzentakata give me a strange sense of déjà vu.
I was told that, after the land development is completed some years from now, all of the machinery and equipment, including the giant suspension bridges for the conveyors, will be dismantled. The town will be very quiet and will probably no longer look like a rugged mine, and I wonder how the town where I was born and raised will look. It ought to look like what we envisioned after the tsunami, but I don’t think there is anyone anywhere who can tell me with confidence that the town will look the way we hope it will.
As if “responding” to the massiveness of the tsunami, the current rebuilding project is also huge. Because it is huge, once the project starts, there is almost no way to stop it; it will take time, and there is no going back. The number of residents who gave up trying to stay in Rikuzentakata and moved on to other places is approaching the number of those who lost their lives in the tsunami. Those with the financial means have already bought a plot of land in the mountain area and built a house and started a new life. Questions arise as to whether the initially planned number of houses will have been built when the huge civil engineering projects are done, and whether the town we dreamed of will be reborn. The outlook on these questions has been undergoing a constant downward revision.
Four years after the tsunami struck, the landscapes of Rikuzentakata, for me right now, appear as a mixture of the “personal” and the “nonpersonal.” Right now, I am feeling as if my body that was within the event is gradually being pulled out as time passes. Perhaps this is what people refer to as “oblivion.”
Cite as: Naoya Hatakeyama, “Artist Talk: Personal Landscapes,” Focus on Japanese Photography, November 2017. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/publication/focus-japanese-photography/personal-landscapes/. From a talk presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 22, 2015.