" I cry when I talk. I cry when I look at my photographs. I’ve cried so much I don’t have any tears left. They’ve all dried out. Now, you can see I’m smiling … that’s because I feel a bit better. But I can’t go home because of the radiation " Sakuko MATSUMOTO
"I was born here in Namie, 10 km away from the nuclear power station, and of course I’d like to go back. Despite the evacuation, I’ve kept my permanent address in Name because, deep down, I’m a resident of Namie, no matter where I go. But as the years have gone by, I’ve ended up telling myself that it’s time to move on because the town will never be the same, everybody’s in the process of buying houses elsewhere." Keiko Suzuki
"After March 11, 2011, proprietors complied with the evacuation order by leaving animals in their enclosures. In the beginning, I didn’t dare set foot on this farm. But three weeks later, I was too worried and I came in. Almost all the cows were already dead or in the throes of agony." Naoto Matsumura
"My grandfather opened this toy store 70 years ago. My family is an important family in the town. There were about 50 of us living in Namie or Odaka and we are all nuclear refugees now. The government wants to reopen the town of Namie in 2017. But just some of the houses will be decontaminated. So, what will happen if a child goes playing around them...? What the government’s doing right now doesn’t make any sense." Yuzo Mihara
" We are seniors. If anyone decided to come home to the no-go zone, a hospital nearby would be the most important thing for us. Even outside the no-go zone, where we’re refugees, I have to get up at 5 in the morning, the line is so long to see a doctor. If the hospitals don’t reopen in the zone, nobody will come back." Tamotsu Hayakawa
" First, I want to know if my neighbors will return. If they won’t, then neither will I " Kaoru SATO
In March 2011, we were distraught by the sight of the no man’s land around the nuclear power station. In the city center of Odaka, about fifteen kilometers away from the power station, time had suddenly come to a standstill. A couch had been left in the middle of the road, a cat was watching from a mud-covered windowpane as though in anticipation of its owners’ return, old-fashioned music continued to resound from a laundromat’s interior. These details recalled the urgency with which the 80 000 residents of the no-go zone had fled, a territory of a radius of 20 km around the Fukushima Daiichi site having been evacuated in just a few days. Still, we came across the odd inhabitant in the midst of these deserted towns: residents in masks and radiological protection suits running about in panic, police officers who were a bit lost, not knowing what instructions to give, or a breeder trying to save his famished horses. Several of his horses, abandoned for several weeks due to the evacuation, were housed in this stable that had been largely destroyed by the seism and tsunami. For our part, we moved forward, eyes riveted on our dosimeter: “So this is what a nuclear accident is like.” Six months later, we wanted to convert this initial shock into a personal artistic project. “Fukushima no-go zone” was born. This long-term work was to go on for six years and took us to the forbidden zone of Fukushima multiple times.
Our first photograph was taken in December 2011. Equipped with radiological protection suits and passes, we were able to cross the checkpoint 20 km away from the power station. As journalistic and artistic activities within the no-go zone were strictly limited, we had the threat of a police arrest hanging over us.
Throughout our work in Fukushima, fear of the authorities was finally superseded by fear of radioactivity, which in our view represented a less tangible and immediate danger.
Late in the evening, we arrived at Tomioka train station, 7 km away from the nuclear power station, which had been entirely submerged by the tsunami. In between the rails, our headlamp lit up the husk of a car. This unexpected apparition—in our eyes, symbolic of the tsunami and the inhabitants’ evacuation—gave rise to the first photo in the “A No-man’s Land” series. And, in a certain way, it set the tone for all of our photographic work.
Since then, we have been applying ourselves to unfolding, one by one, the consequences of this nuclear disaster, the most serious since the Chernobyl accident in 1986: towns and rural areas emptied of their inhabitants, the fear of radioactivity, the difficult matter of going back, nature that is reclaiming its rights in the absence of humans, and the astronomical quantities of polluted waste issuing from the decontamination campaign launched by the Japanese authorities.
This photographic work is our contribution to the narrative of a historic disaster. The accident is far from being over, either at the power station or among the nuclear refugees. And we hope to continue to testify to this sad but also multifaceted page of the Fukushima region’s history.
Carlos Ayesta - Guillaume Bression
By Christian CAUJOLLE
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake shook the north-east of Japan, in the Sendai region. This seism triggered a spectacular tsunami, the waves of which reached a height of more than 30 meters in some places. We all saw the terrifying images—they were shown in loops on televisions across the world before being dispelled by other dramatic news—of this wall of water that destroyed everything in its progress, carried everything away, heedlessly redefined the ocean-side landscape up to ten kilometers inland. Like all news images, they disappeared the moment the media tried to “show” another consequence of the tsunami: the nuclear accident at Fukushima, which affected the power station of the same name and delimited what has become a forbidden territory. Images of densitometers and figures in radiological protection suits were shown repeatedly. There were 150 000 displaced persons in Fukushima prefecture alone.
Carlos Ayesta and Guillaume Bression were on the scene very quickly. In order to take stock. To see. They were staggered by what they saw. They took photographs not in order to testify but out of necessity, because they were there and could not believe their eyes, and that is what transformed their astonishment into a project: the outrageousness of the situation.
It is an atypical project, profoundly linked to photography’s role as a documentary medium. One does not require the truth from it, but a form of operational neutrality that allows photographers to assume a position and express themselves. A project that comes in a succession of renewed points of view, analytical angles that are different each time, visual proposals that may even seem contradictory. The will to document resides in the intention, in the will to explore a situation in as complete a manner as possible, including what the situation comprises of the invisible, of the non-visual. Not in what it is customary to call “documentary style”, which is based on repetition of frame, of point of view, in order to make up an ensemble of images that we can compare and mix and match.
Each series, which has been planned and produced as a unit, is highly coherent. It even, occasionally, has a demonstrative dimension. When the series are brought together, we realize that we are progressing from the detail, with objects, painful still-lifes, to the monumental, the infinitely large, with the 25 000 000 cubic meters of contaminated soil which have been piled together within walls protected by plastic. It is a universe, in all its dimensions, that has been affected. By playing in turn with the observation—exuberant nature—, with the production—the protagonists’ return to their former places of residence—, with fiction or realism, the two authors practice the potentials of photography in its interpretative relationship to the real with incredible freedom. They assume a position and, at the same time, since they decide on a very precise plan at each stage, they deliver to us, by blending the different approaches, a troubling result, which provides access to information but demonstrates nothing, an effect is desolate and visually dazzling at the same time. And, more important than everything, while they have made a pact with time in order to put together this ensemble, they cause us to see the extent to which time is wounded, deeply, for thousands of people, for an earth. Nothing, after years of work, allows a glimpse of an open future, a change. Everything seems to have become immutable, unless nature accelerates its development.
One could analyze each series, take apart the oeuvre’s visual logic that ensures its impact. It is more important to linger on what constitutes the true photographic basis of this long-term work: color. The tsunami’s aftermath, the Fukushima disaster, generated a great number of photographic works. Documentary or conceptual, serial or literary. Many among those that were elaborated over a long period are in black and white. By choosing color, by deciding on methods without regard to color processing, Carlos Ayesta and Guillaume Bression are not seeking “realism”. But they affirm, unlike other photographers, that their work is constructed today, at the moment when the facts that mobilized them and prompted their reaction were taking place. To be of one’s time, to confront the issues of one’s time is a courageous decision. It is also a necessity.