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Japan's Triple Disaster

By David Butow   Thursday April 7, 2011

As I sit down to write this in Tokyo, at this moment, 11:37 at night on April 7, there is the most significant aftershock of the dozens I've felt in the two weeks since I've been here. This one lasted close to a minute. The main national TV channel NHK immediately shows a tsunami warning with a map of Japan and a red area along the coast where the enormous wave crashed nearly a month ago, killing tens of thousands of people.

One of the peculiar marks of this disaster is that it continues. The natural dangers can be felt viscerally like the earthquake, or seen, like the wave and its destruction, but the nuclear threat - man-made and formless -  can only be registered by machines and quantified by scientists. It is both hi-tech and low-tech, third-world conditions in a first-world country. In flattened towns, stunned and cold survivors wait in orderly queues for food and water, while fresh images of them are transmitted from laptops connected to wireless phone signals using tiny devices rented at Haneda airport.

Photographing this multi-dimensional event in a meaningful way is particularly challenging. I came to to Japan about 10 days after the quake struck and had already been exposed to dramatic photographs and footage of the devastation. There was no point in trying to re-do the dramatic pictures by news photographers who were one the scene in the first hours and days.

In fact, when I finally made it to the areas most damaged, having dealt with the logistical hurdles of expensive and difficult-to-find transportation, and few indoor places to sleep, I was frustrated by the unexpected difficulty of adequately photographing the destruction. Time and again, while standing in a flattened neighborhood taking pictures, I would look at the digital image on the back of my camera and realize that it came nowhere close to reflecting what my eyes were seeing.

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Photographs copyright and courtesy David Butow.

So I decided to zero in and focus on the elements and emotion of the story in a country known for its reserve. A victim from this tragedy might be a neatly-dressed young man having a Geiger counter waved over him in a florescent-lit conference room in a sports stadium-turned-refugee center (above left); or it might be an now-homeless elderly survivor from a hard-hit town. The woman in the picture above was one of about 150 people who were living in classrooms at a middle school in Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture, a large town but not quite a city, right on the coast.

I don't know her story. I had no translator with me when I took this picture. And no one in the room spoke English. I don't know if she saw the wave come in, or if she lost relatives or friends, a pet, or a husband. I don't know if she grew up in Ishinomaki or if she moved there last year. For all these reasons the picture falls short of journalism. I can only surmise that she doesn't have a lot of options, or even family to help her, if two weeks after the disaster she is still living and sleeping in a space no larger than a spread-out blanket. I sat on the floor about two feet away from her for maybe one minute while I was shooting. She was not shy about having her picture taken: she looked right into the camera for several frames then closed her eyes for a moment. I have no idea what she sees in her mind, I can only project, feel empathy for her on the most basic level, and let her be a reflection of the broad human experience of this tragedy.

Looking at the arc of these events in Japan, an outsider like myself is limited in what we can figure out. We can view physical damage but the nuclear impact continues, unseen. Unless you are a scientist, you have to rely on others to quantify the danger. It's equally hard to comprehend the impact on the personal and societal levels. Many foreigners have described this culture as particularly opaque. During this disaster the Japanese seem exceptionally unified; they have a sense of national and cultural duty to help each other while keeping tradition and order. People stand in queues to get food, water, gas and transportation.

The country suffered incalculably during World War II and Prime Minister Kan has declared this event the worst since that era. Then, as now, there was physical destruction and a nuclear disaster even after the earth shook. The Japanese had to rebuild a government and an economy practically from scratch and their society was changed in the process. Maybe on a much smaller scale the same things will happen again. I'm not sure if the woman in the picture here is old enough to remember those times, but I imagine her life is irrevocably changed by recent events.

David Butow is a photojournalist based in California. Assignments have taken him to Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America. His primary interests are social issues and the effects of public policy at local and international levels. Butow also works extensively in the United States covering issues of politics, education, race, immigration and poverty among others. He has received various awards from World Press Photo, Communcation Arts, University of Missouri Pictures of the Year, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, Photo District News, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, The American Photography Annual, The New York Association of Black Journalists and the Society of Magazine Designers.

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