Mementos of Happiness
For over a year, starting in the summer of 2019, I took photographs of Okuma-machi, a town in Fukushima Prefecture. Okuma is where the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is located. After the enormous earthquake/tsunami disaster of March 11th, 2011, the town was completely evacuated; since then, for most people, entry to the town is strictly prohibited. Fortunately, a personal connection permitted me to enter the area in my capacity as a photographer.
In such a totally shut-down situation, the town is gradually, continually being destroyed due to decontamination procedures and the construction of radioactive waste treatment facilities. However, there still exist many areas where everything is left just as it was ten years ago. In these places, it can seem as if the people were suddenly spirited away, with vital belongings left untouched. Visiting the kindergarten, the elementary school, the junior high school, the care home for the elderly, private houses, and so on, I could clearly see how their daily lives were up until that sudden, complete evacuation.
The word "baffling" often came to my mind. I felt as if the possessions that were randomly left behind, such as small futons for children, school bags, and family photos, cried out for some kind of explanation. I could not find any answers in my mind - so I simply took photographs, to prove to myself that I had seen these abandoned objects.
However, as I continued to revisit Okuma-machi, things started to feel somehow different. I thought I began to hear tender voices, speaking of bygone, happy days. On sensing these benevolent voices, I felt somehow that I had crossed a border and joined them on their side, transforming myself from someone who takes photographs to a person or object to be photographed. At that point, I stopped being an observer or auteur, and became an interpreter or transmitter.
When I talk about the tragedy of Okuma, I have complex, sometimes contradictory feelings, which are unavoidable, and sometimes difficult to express. But when I try to look deeply into my heart, I find that what I really want to share is this: when a person is confronted with a baffling event, in whatever way, even the smallest happy memories will provide the strength to overcome it and find peace.
To create these works, I used Kamikawasaki washi, hand-screened Japanese paper which has been manufactured for over 1000 years in Nihonmatsu in Fukushima prefecture. The craftspeople there still grow kozo (paper mulberry) plants in the fields, for the purpose of making paper according to traditional methods. I applied photographic emulsion to this paper, and printed the images in my own darkroom. From the warm-toned ecru-coloured paper imbued with the organic energy of its source, the memories of the land seemed to arise gently and naturally. Even when printing and reprinting the same negative, I achieved a different result each time, which may indicate that the memories held in the paper are as numerous as the people who lived in the area.