After The Meltdown, What Is It Really Like At The Fukushima Plant?

PSFK interviews the New York based photographer Kyoko Hamada who traveled to the area, risking her own safety in pursuit of capturing striking visual images of the region in the wake of the destruction.

In a year that’s brought a great number of news-worthy, world-changing, and utterly shocking events, one has still managed to stand out in particular as a reminder of just how fragile our man-made society can be. The recent meltdown at the Fukushima Plant in Japan was shocking not just for its sheer terror and devastation, but also as a symbol of our own weakness in the face of mother nature’s full force. As one of the worst nuclear disasters since 1986′s Chernobyl accident, the events at the Fukushima Plant sent shockwaves throughout Japanese society–a culture already well-experienced in the aftereffects of nuclear fallout.

Recruited by The New Yorker, New York based photographer Kyoko Hamada bravely traveled to the area in the direct aftermath, risking her own safety in pursuit of capturing striking visual images of a region facing the unthinkable. The results are a series of moving portraits, available for full view at the New Yorker’s website. We recently asked Kyoko to tell us a little bit about what it was like to travel to Fukushima, and how the experience has impacted her.

Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant?

I was on a photo assignment for the New Yorker.

How would you describe the atmosphere there?

On the bus ride to the Fukushima area, I was surprised to see that nature was prospering despite all of the radiation.
I noticed a general worry about the radiation, but at the same time, people were still focused on their everyday lives. They went to work, school, shopped for groceries and met up with friends, and there even seemed to be a sense of hopefulness and community even among strangers. When I started meeting people who still live in Fukushima, I thought I may have been overly concerned about the radiation, however, once I started hearing the geiger counters beeping, and saw big ones installed on the sidewalks I quickly realized it was a very serious situation. Radiation is deceiving. We can’t see it, so it’s easy to create this big monster in your head even when the geiger counter is not showing high radiation.

Or you can be standing in middle of a beautiful village surrounded by flowers and trees with bumble bees the geiger counter can be showing dangerously high. Despite all of the confusion and conflicting feelings, I did get a sense people’s strength, and optimism for the future.

What were you expecting when you left? How did it compare to the reality?

It almost seems as though there is more concern about the effects of the radiation coming from the U.S. media than in Japan. It reminded me of 9/11 when my family in Tokyo thought that all of New York City was under attack. Meanwhile, as surreal as it all was, a lot of us just went to work and carried on with our daily lives. The reality is Fukushima City is very much functioning, and people still live and work there, except for in the evacuated areas within 30 km (18 miles) of the power plant.

Had you been to the area before? From your perspective, how has the government been stepping in?

No, this was the first time visiting Fukushima. I’m no expert in this area and I’m sure they are doing all they can at this point (I’d like to believe that they are ). However, it seemed that they took some time until they started stepping in, while it really was crucial to make important decisions in the beginning.

Did you have any hesitations about working on the project?

I definitely had some worries about taking this assignment, but at the same time I felt it was very important for me to go there and see for myself what was going on. I had spent so much time closely following the news and getting updates from my family, that when the New Yorker offered me the job, I almost saw it as a gift in weird way.

What images or visuals especially drew you in?

It was important for me to see things without any judgment. I didn’t want to come back with more devastation pictures since I had already seen so many of those on news. The reality was that I really felt a lot of tenderness from the local people who really care about where they live. It was important for me to show that life goes on even after this type of sad event.

I noticed that the motif of sunflowers are recurring in many of your photographs, do you think you could explain that?

Well… I like flowers. I was visiting Fukushima during Obon (a Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of ancestors). I was thinking of the custom in Japan of going home and visiting family graves. I met local people who were planting flowers and told me that they will be good offerings for their ancestors, as well as for the victims of the disaster. Also, I was there in late August when sunflowers bloom, and some of the farmers had replanted their rice patties with sunflowers hoping that they would be helpful in absorbing radiation from the soil.

How did you find your subjects? Were any reluctant?

The writer of the article gave me a few contacts that he wanted me to photograph—people who were subjects in his piece. There was one plant worker who seemed reluctant to be photographed since it might put his job at risk. The rest of people I photographed were people I met casually on the streets just by walking around with a camera.

Now that you’ve been there, do you feel you might ever go again?

I would like to go back there since there are many photographs I still have in mind that I couldn’t photograph at the time. Also, it’ll be nice to say hello again to some of the memorable people I met there.

Kyoko Hamada: Letter to Fukushima
Evan Osnos,:“The Fallout,” The New Yorker
Kyoko Hamada

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