The Year in Photography: Kosuke Okahara on Fukushima

By Conor Risch

© Kosuke Okahara
A photograph of the sea in Iwaki City, where people would normally fish and swim. To see more images from the series, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

It was a year of dramatic events and history-making trends that often challenged the journalists and photographers who were eager to cover them. In our June issue, we spoke with five photographers who managed to find fresh and thoughtful perspectives on the year’s news stories. Below, learn more about how Kosuke Okahara's documented the impact the tsunami had on Fukushima, Japan, and the surrounding areas.

Japanese photojournalist Kosuke Okahara was working in Libya when the tsunami struck Japan and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Okahara watched the news unfold on CNN, and it was ten days before he could get back to Japan.

Not long after he returned, Okahara was in Fukushima on assignment for the French magazine Polka, and later worked there on stories for The New York Times, Newsweek Japan and a pair of Swiss publications. Okahara realized early in his assignment work that he wanted to create a personal project about Fukushima, so he began looking for the story he wanted to tell.

Okahara had trouble wrapping his head around the event, its aftermath and what it would mean for Japan. How do you photograph radiation or visualize its future impact? “It was quite difficult for the first six months simply because it was too big,” Okahara explains. Realizing the significance of the nuclear disaster was impossible to understand much less photograph, and that only time would reveal the true meaning of what happened, Okahara decided to “collect fragments” and pack them away for the future.

Though he generally shoots with a Leica for his personal work and made color photographs on assignment in Fukushima, for this project Okahara elected to use a 4 x 5 for the first time. The deliberateness of large format seemed appropriate, he says, because he wanted “to focus on each image and see each image as more important.”

In his black-and-white photographs we see a lifeguard’s platform on the seashore, it’s railing hangs awkwardly from one side over an eerily peaceful sea. There are images of cattle, both alive, and dead and decaying. There are non-resident workers in masks attempting to control the radiation in the area, and farmers in their fields working to decontaminate the land. The images are quiet, stark and haunting.

“This is not really a narrative or story,” Okahara says, “but more to understand what it is for myself and for people in the future.” There is a bizarre feeling in Fukushima, Okahara says, that he is trying to document with his photographs. He plans to work for another year or two on his 4 x 5 images, then publish a book and exhibit the work. “I want to show this project, these pictures, to our children, or children of children. I’m really hoping that people in the future can take a look at my images and they can just imagine what it was.”

Related Articles:

Kosuke Okahara Photo Gallery
The Year in Photography: Nina Berman on Fracking
The Year in Photography: Ashley Gilbertson on Occupy Wall Street
The Year in Photography: John Moore on the Housing Crisis
The Year in Photography: Yuri Kozyrev on the Arab Spring

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