Obara Kazuma is the man

The brief (with numbers added): to nominate up to five photographers

  1. who have demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography,
  2. who have taken chances with their photography and have shown an unwillingness to play it safe.

On top of these (and implied numbers 3 recently and 4 who you happen to think of), I’ll add one more:

5. And whose work is good.

Er . . . Asger Carlsen?

by Asger Carlsen

But has he really taken chances? He’s good at what he does (and if Hester is ever published, I’ll buy a copy). But once he’s got the consent forms from the models, manipulating photos of nude ladies and marketing the results seem pretty safe. It’s not as if he were living in Iran.

Others . . . with Bee, Rose-Lynn Fisher uses an idea in photography that’s stunningly new (to me).

bee antenna, by Rose-Lynn Fisher

But then again (i) it’s three years old and (ii) for all I know scanning electron microscope photography is a well established technique/genre, if little promoted in the bookshops I frequent.

All too complex, so I’ll stick to Japan, where I happen to be. It’s a small nation facing plenty of real issues, very often eclipsed by junk food news (AKB48, the “Senkaku” islets, etc). Among the real issues are a large earthquake and tsunami (sixteen thousand deaths confirmed, three thousand more almost certain), continuing leaks of radioactive material, negligence leading to those leaks, evasiveness and dishonesty about the negligence and its results, pandemic fantasizing and nimbyism about major alternatives to nuclear power, huge consumption of electricity and other nations’ forests, stigmatism and discrimination.

Photographers of course have been under no obligation to pay attention to any of this, but you’d think that some would. And indeed there have been artistic responses. Jens Liebchen pointed his camera out of the window during a two-hour trip far from the area flattened by the tsunami (Tsukuba–Narita 2011/03/13). Ōmori Katsumi photographed cherry blossoms and (it seems to me) photoshopped in raindrops or halation (Everything happens for the first time). Kawauchi Rinko made some pretty thing with a black and a white bird (Light and Shadow). All no doubt well intended (the proceeds from at least one of these go to some unspecified charity), but all curiously insipid.

Luckily there’s been better work on the subject, even by the famous. Hatakeyama Naoya’s new book Kesengawa has good photography. (Unfortunately the book has a perverse design, in which many of its “portrait”-format pages are occupied half by a “landscape” photo, half by white space.) Shinoyama Kishin has put out a worthwhile book too (Atokata). And there have been good books by people who deserve to be better known: Hatsuzawa Ari’s True Feelings, Kōda Daichi (幸田大地)’s Bōkyaku (忘却), and more.

What haven’t yet had so much coverage (necessarily with text as well as photos) are the lives of those affected. I could name three or four worthwhile books that do present them, and among them one stands out. It’s from Switzerland: Reset: Beyond Fukushima, by Obara Kazuma (小原一真). The book isn’t conspicuous in Japanese bookstores (I only learned of it via the review at Conscientious), but it deserves to be in every library here. Obara illicitly entered a damaged reactor building, observed and photographed there, photographed and interviewed the people working there, and photographed more besides, for a substantial book.

Fukushima nuclear reactor, by Obara Kazuma

Obara says of the photo above:

You can see the No. 2 reactor in the foreground on the left, and behind it, slightly obscured, the shell of the No. 3 reactor. I was shocked to see so many exposed pipes. They had never been shown on TV. On August 1, Tepco announced that radiation of 10,000 millisieverts per hour had been detected between reactors 1 and 2, not far from the sign, in red lettering, that reads “With one heart: never give up, Fukushima.” Spending just one and a half minutes there would take a plant worker above his maximum allowable dose of 250 millisieverts. And nothing was ever explained to them, even after the announcement. When I left the plant at the end of the day I underwent a radiation check that showed I had been exposed to 60 microsieverts in the space of six hours. I am a little concerned about the long-term effects that may have on my health, but I’m more worried about the young men who work there day in, day out.

25-year-old worker in contaminated nuclear power plant, photo by Obara Kazuma
Obara Kazuma hangs photograph at Osaka exhibition
25-year-old worker in contaminated nuclear power plant, photo by Obara Kazuma

This man says:

[. . .] it was tough going at the beginning, so tough, With people passing out one after the other at the plant, I thought it couldn’t just be the radiation’s influence. Thought I’d die of overwork or mental stress. Your head gets heavy and I would feel unbearable pain after only one and a half or two hours of work. I told myself I would die anyway, whether I continued working or not. That really was awful. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go on. On top of that I had a strong feeling that we were by no means following any emergency evacuation manual—something that still doesn’t exist to this day. Still, I’m not as pessimistic as the TV reports. [. . .] Everyone must be thinking that the people of Fukushima are worn out and exhausted, the city discouraged. They keep on encouraging us to hang in there, but we already are.

Reset: Beyond Fukushima has the sub-subtitle Will the Nuclear Catastrophe Bring Humanity to Its Senses? Will it? No it won’t: Enough people will be happy if lignite or any old crap is burned for electricity, as long as it’s not upwind. As for real reductions in power consumption: only if they’re painless. (The idea of not using air conditioning brings incredulous looks here.) So we know the answer, and to put the on the cover makes the book sound much more preachy than it is. Ignore the question and get hold of a copy (ISBN 3037782927).

  1. Obara has demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography. Photographically, not really. But journalistically, a daring idea, or anyway in Japan, with its incurious and docile mass media corporations (see Laurie Anne Freeman, Closing the Shop).
  2. Obara has taken chances with his photography and shown an unwillingness to play it safe. Japanese corporations have moved on a bit since Chisso had Eugene Smith beaten up, but yes. Those risks aside, yes, measurable via geiger counter.

For your reading and viewing pleasure:

Anyone else of note? Japan’s “first female photojournalist”, Sasamoto Tsuneko (笹本恒子) has just had new books published. Here (video, Japanese only) she is. I only hope I’ll be that sharp when I’m 97.

The more youthful (91) Fukushima Kikujirō (福島菊次郎) continues to work: at 90 he was photographing Fukushima (the place) and was the subject of a new documentary film. Here’s its trailer — in Japanese only, but, thanks to Dan Abbe, with an English translation. The best-known work by Fukushima (a fairly common surname) is a long-term study of an atomic bomb survivor made during the 1950s, but time, age, cancer and a low income haven’t led him to acquiesce in the lies of Japan (the title of the film).

I haven’t seen the film yet but mrs microcord reports that it’s good. (She’s now reading the first of three volumes (of text) by Fukushima on utsurunakatta sengo, the unphotographed postwar era.) Here’s more recent material about Fukushima (the man):

And so:

  1. Fukushima has demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography. Ah, here’s the problem. All I’ve seen from him this century are three photos quickly flashed at the viewer during the trailer for the documentary. Journalistically, it’s what ought to be routine: documenting what must be documented.
  2. Fukushima has taken chances with his photography and shown an unwillingness to play it safe.. Yes, he’s so frail that he’s taking a chance in merely showing up. Yes, the safe (and “sensible”) course would be to enter and stay within an old people’s home.

I can’t praise a photographer so highly when I haven’t seen the photos, and therefore microcord’s special summer 2012 accolade goes to Obara alone. But all power to Fukushima — I will see the film, and I hope to see his recent photos too.

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Hatsuzawa Ari on the earthquake year

Hatsuzawa’s “True Feelings” (with Tatsuki’s “Tohoku”)Hatsuzawa’s “True Feelings” (with Tatsuki’s “Tohoku”)Since the March 2011 earthquake and flooding of Sanriku there’ve been various books of photographs of the aftermath, from the major newspapers and elsewhere. Excellent examples may have somehow passed me by, but for whatever reason I hadn’t seen any book that as a whole seemed more than conscientious and competent until the other day when I was looking around in a regular bookshop (whose photobook section offered UNESCO World Heritage sites, puppies, kittens, the latest by Araki, not much more), and came across Hatsuzawa Ari’s True Feelings.

The amount here strongly suggests that Hatsuzawa was in the area when the earthquake struck, and stayed there. But no, he’s a Tokyo-based commercial photographer who occasionally has an urge to go somewhere and photograph something non-commercial but important: in early 2003, both in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq and in the early stage of its occupation, he’d gone to Baghdad (resulting in a book that I haven’t yet seen).

Hatsuzawa rushed up to the Sanriku area the day after the earthquake hit:

12 March 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

This was the first of 18 trips there through the year. More from March:

March 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

The earthquake caused enormous fires, of which the most serious was in Chiba, a long way from the most serious tsunami damage. This fire doesn’t seem to be clearly identified, but the context strongly suggests that it’s the JX Nippon Oil & Energy plant in Sendai, which burned for days.

March 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

March 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

I’m reminded of Kikuchi Shunkichi’s panoramas of Hiroshima immediately after the bomb.

April brings cherry blossoms, of course. April in Kesennuma:

April 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

April 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

July:

July 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

October:

October 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

December:

December 2011: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

And into 2012:

January 2012: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

The young people on the left will be celebrating coming-of-age day. (Thus the “adult” cigarettes.)

March 2012: page spread from Hatsuzawa Ari’s “True Feelings”

The distinctive building at the right within the photo on the left is in Kesennuma; it both belongs to the company making Otokoyama (男山) sake and advertises it. The building appears in a lot of post-earthquake photo collections (not that I’m complaining). If you’re thinking that you’ve enjoyed Otokoyama but that surely it was from somewhere else, you might be confusing it with Otokoyama from Asahikawa (Hokkaidō), Otokoyama from Hachinohe (Aomori), Otokoyama from Miyako (Aomori), Otokoyama from Shiogama (Miyagi), Otokoyama from Yamagata, Otokoyama from Itoigawa (Niigata), Otokoyama from Hokuto (Yamanashi), or Otokoyama from San’yō-Onoda (Yamaguchi).

Hatsuzawa has been very energetic and has amassed a great number and variety of photos here. He’s got the “obligatory” photos: not only the Otokoyama building, but the burning refinery (above), and the police barrier against entering the area designated as radioactively contaminated. But he’s also got a man holding a rabbit in front of his house, whose upper floor seems to be inhabited by chickens; he’s got a worker (it would seem) in an otherwise deserted cafeteria playing the sax; he brings other little surprises too. And he has a marvelous eye for colour. Don’t believe your eyes: my incompetence in photographing the book has messed up the colour balance. (I don’t try hard to rise above this incompetence, as I hope you’ll look at the book itself, or at least at websites whose JPEGs are authorized by the photographer.)

Which of course raises the question: How can you talk about “an eye for colour” and suchlike arty folderol when dealing with photos of the aftermath of sixteen thousand deaths?

Because the photographs would be no more compelling or informative or otherwise valuable if they weren’t as good. Are, bure, boke is old hat; each can of course be used to good effect but draws more attention to itself (and easily looks more affected) than does the (conventionally?) skilful. Moreover, the people in the book are wearing neat suits and kimono where they can. . . .

The English-language title True Feelings is more conspicuous than the Japanese title, which means the true (genuine) feelings of scars (or a scar), and whose meaning isn’t much clearer than the English. (Genuine feelings about the scar[s], or prompted by them?) The photos are identified by place (in roman letters). Hatsuzawa provides a short essay (in Japanese only) for each month, Tsukahara Fumi provides an appreciative if busily name-dropping essay (again in Japanese only), and Hatsuzawa supplies an afterword (in English only).

The book probably won’t win any design awards because a lot of pages have not-so-elegant arrangements of two or more photographs. And a curator would say that editing should be tighter. But me, I like the way that the book has over a hundred and fifty photographs without taking more space on the shelf than is necessary.

The printing and binding are unexceptional but easily up to the job, and the price is very reasonable. Come to think of it, couldn’t the publisher have jacked up the price by ¥500, to be contributed to charity? But perhaps this is hard to arrange; and certainly publishers in Japan have enough other worries as it is. We buyers of the book can always make our own donations.

初沢亜利 = Ari Hatsuzawa. True Feelings 爪痕の真情。2011.3.12~2012.3.11 (True Feelings: Tsume-ato no shinjō. 2011.3.12 – 2012.3.11). Tokyo: 三栄書房 (San’ei Shobō) = San-ei Shobo 2012. ISBN 978-4-7796-1480-4 (here in Worldcat). ¥2667 plus tax.

Hatsuzawa’s website/blog is here at Facebook. (A few days ago, anyone could see this. Now, and I hope just temporarily, you have to log into Facebook in order to do so. I’m not a member and have no plan to join.) There’s a page of links to his photos (to which access was unrestricted when I last looked): some of the links are in English and point to the photographs collected in True Feelings.

Here (in Japanese) is a short review of the book at Asahi Camera.

cover of “Genroq” magazineSan-ei Shobo, the publisher, mostly deals in magazines and books about cars and other ways in which people can spend their money. The relation here is that Hatsuzawa is a commercial photographer specializing in cars and did work for San-ei Shobo’s car magazine Genroq, which serialized the photographs later collected in this book. This book is unusual for San-ei and merits some self-congratulation, not to mention publicity. But San-ei Shobo’s page about it, listed within the section on “other practical books and guidebooks” (その他の実用/ガイド), is surprisingly modest and uninformative. Note to San-ei Shobo: It’s a good book; throw yourselves a little party!

If you’re in Japan, True Feelings is easy to find. If you see it in a bookshop, look at the very last photo for 2011, and if this doesn’t “sell” the book then I give up. If you’re not in Japan, you’re likely to get it at a reasonable price via Japan Exposures.

Copyright of most of the images above belongs to Hatsuzawa Ari; I don’t own the copyright of any of them.