scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Photography review

At the MFA, Japanese photographers on the 2011 earthquake, tsunami

“2013.10.20 Kesen-cho” by Naoya Hatakeyama. Naoya Hatakeyama

Before looking at the nearly 100 photographs that make up “In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11,” a visitor to the Museum of Fine Arts should go to the television monitor by the Museum Road side of the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery.

“In the Wake” runs at the museum through July 12.

The monitor shows real-time aerial footage that the Japanese network NHK broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Those two events caused the deaths of more than 18,000 people and displacement of another 400,000. In a country the size of the United States, that would translate to nearly 50,000 deaths and over a million people displaced. But even those numbers don’t give a true approximation of the impact in a country so much smaller geographically, and so much more homogeneous culturally.


The footage is at once mesmerizing and ghastly. Debris-filled water rushes over the land, carrying all before it: cars, trucks, houses, barrier walls. That the footage is soundless makes the sense of unreality all the more disorienting.

That astounding footage is the challenge that faces any photographer hoping to document those events — or, even harder, evoke them. Actually, the challenge is even more daunting. Japanese refer to the “Triple Disaster,” for the earthquake and tsunami led to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. “In the Wake” has two sections, in fact, one relating to the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake, the other to Fukushima. As the photographer Masato Seto writes, “I feel that I’ve seen something that should never have been seen.” How to convey such a something?

Seto is one of 17 photographers in the show. It’s almost miraculous how much of what they’ve done hasn’t been rendered superfluous or trivial by that footage. The work takes numerous forms, ranging from video to daguerreotype, abstraction to traditional straight photography.


While there are numerous pictures of destruction, several photographers take oblique approaches. Some involve animals. The lifeless staring eye in Masaru Tatsuki’s “Deer 3, November 2011, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture” is at once reproach and vision of solidarity. The two pigeons Rinko Kawauchi shows against an empty sky seem as divorced from anything like daily human existence as many Japanese must have felt after 3/11.

Takashi Homma photographed radioactive mushrooms in the forest of Fukushima. Each specimen looms large, roughly 5 feet by 4 feet, against a white background. They recall Irving Penn’s flower studies. Homma’s pictures echo Penn’s in being meditations on mortality, but they carry an additional burden of meaning. The conceptual distance from mushroom to mushroom cloud in this context is grimly short. Even without knowing anything about where the mushrooms come from, they have an appearance that’s odd, off, even accusatory.

Inevitably, references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki recur throughout the Fukushima section of “In the Wake” — it’s in their wake, too, that Japanese live. This sense of historical continuity is emphasized to startling effect by Takashi Arai. He’s the photographer who makes daguerreotypes. To see something as technologically advanced as a power plant shown in a format so technologically rudimentary is utterly confounding. In a show full of incongruous images — beached ships, shattered bridges, abandoned towns — Arai’s may be the most incongruous of all. They’re even more surreal than the sight of an ostrich walking down the middle of a street in Yasusuke Ota’s “Deserted Town.”


“April 26, 2011, Onahama, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture” by Takashi Arai. Takashi Arai

“In the Wake” is a show of impressive scope and variety, ambition and power. So it may be unfair to single out the work of one photographer as being its heart. But Naoya Hatakeyama’s 15 photographs, and two accompanying slide shows, have a beauty and heft that make them seem central to “In the Wake.” Most of the photographs in the show are unmatted, as if to emphasize that aesthetic concerns are peripheral, or even extraneous, to what the photographer is after. Hatakeyama’s are matted. The white borders enhance the delicacy of his color and keenness of his framing. One of the photographs shows a rainbow against a darkened sky. That sounds like the worst sort of “tomorrow is another day” banality. It’s a tribute to Hatakeyama’s artistry — and depth of feeling — that in actuality it feels quite otherwise. That’s true even without knowing that the rainbow touches earth where the photographer’s family home once stood.

“In the Wake” includes a computer display with scores of images from Western and Japanese photojournalists and a display of personal photographs from the Lost and Found Project. The project retrieved snapshots that had been lost or damaged in the earthquake and tsunami, with the aim of restoration and return to their owners. It’s no criticism of the 17 photographers to suggest that these ravaged images have an eloquence beyond anything else in the show.


“Deserted Town” by Yasusuke Ota. Yasusuke Ota
Tadioactive mushroom photographed by Takashi Homma. Takashi Arai

Mark Feeney can be reached at