Photographing Fukushima: Toru Anzai’s images document life at ground zero for future generations
Images of temporary housing where many lived in uncertainty and a mountain of disposal bags full of radioactive soil, those were part of the photographic collection taken by 73-years old Toru Anzai after the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 forced him to evacuate from his home of many years in Iitate, Fukushima.
Anzai started photography as a hobby when he was in his twenties, at a time when film cameras were still in their heyday. He recalled being especially fond of taking landscape photographs, capturing beautiful rural scenes or the sun rising from in between mountains.
“I’m not a professional, but I never wanted to miss an opportunity for a photograph, so I always had my camera with me,” said Anzai. “I even took it with me to work sites with heavy machinery, so sometimes my precious camera ended up getting broken.”
Those fond days when he was able to enjoy his hobby, capturing on film the landscapes that caught his imagination, were brought to an abrupt end when disaster swept over his hometown.
No more photographs
Anzai was not hurt during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Nuclear disaster. Immediately after the accident, he joined search efforts to locate missing persons and saw with his own eyes a townscape completely transformed by the earthquake, and the unrecognizable bodies of victims as they were recovered from underneath buildings and rubble.
“Has anyone… has anyone… seen Granny?” The voices of family members desperately searching for missing loved ones haunted his ears.
“I always had my camera with me,” Anzai said. “And I knew that I should be taking pictures to keep a record of what was happening, but I just wasn’t able to bring myself to photograph what I saw.”
From that day, Anzai became unable to take photographs in the way that he had done before. Every time he picked up his camera, the scenes he saw during the rescue efforts, the destroyed townscape and the heartbreaking calls of people searching for family members, came rushing back in his mind and his hands would freeze.
Three months after the disaster in June 2011, Anzai evacuated to Fukushima city from his house, located about 22 miles from the nuclear power plant. At the time, he thought that he would eventually be able to return home. But the radiation pollution was worse than imagined, and he ended up living in temporary housing for more than seven years. The temporary housing lacked proper facilities, and he was often unwell due to the stress of living there. Overwhelmed by daily struggles, he simply stopped taking photographs.
Rediscovering his passion
In December 2012, Anzai was invited by a friend to visit Yamaguchi prefecture and talk about his experiences during the nuclear disaster, and his subsequent day-to-day life. On that occasion he met the late photojournalist, Kikujiro Fukushima. Hailing from Yamaguchi prefecture, Fukushima launched his career as a photographer documenting the lives of atomic-bomb survivors as they struggled with the after-effects of the bomb. He then went on to use his photography to expose many social issues, such as pollution, and became known as the “defiant photojournalist” for his reputation of challenging the establishment through his bold images.
“You are a photographer too, right, Mr. Anzai?” Fukushima asked.
“Yes I am, but I’m not very good,” answered Anzai modestly.
Although he loved photography to the extent that he never went anywhere without his camera, after the disaster Anzai found himself unable to take pictures as he wished.
“And besides, I can’t bring myself to photograph things anymore,” Anzai added as the emotions that he had been holding back suddenly spilled out.
Seeing Anzai deep in thought, the old photographer who was 91 at the time, spoke slowly after a moment of silence.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ photo or a ‘bad’ photo,” said Fukushima. “Just take photographs of whatever. Then in 30 or 40 years they will come to life.”
From that day forward, Anzai started taking photos again. His lens has captured images of the townscapes cleaned up through recovery efforts, and other hometowns that remain evacuated with residents still unable to return. His photographs capture Fukushima seen through his eyes, undisguised and as it was. Anzai has held exhibitions in Tokyo, Fukushima, and Yamaguchi, sharing his work with many people.
“At some point I need to go through them all properly and sort them, but in total I think there are about 40,000 photos. I’ve also been taking videos,” said Anzai.
Documenting Fukushima now for the future
In 2018, Anzai was left with no choice but to demolish his home in Iitate, where he had lived since his birth for more than 60 years. It was an agonizing decision he was forced into. The house fell into disrepair after his evacuation dragged on, and it became impossible to maintain or renovate. He tried to document the demolition, but the workers did not like being photographed so he captured the last moments of his home from a distance, through a telescopic lens.
“After I demolished the house, I felt a bit down again,” said Anzai. “But I’m starting to take pictures again. When it gets warm, I’m going to go out to all sorts of places with my camera.”
Fukushima’s words, telling him to “just take photographs” gently pushed him forward every time Anzai found himself about to get stuck. Currently, Anzai lives in a house in Date, Fukushima. On the surface, it appears that the peaceful life he enjoyed before the disaster has returned. However, just a short drive away are many areas classified as “difficult to return zones.” In those places, the movement of people is still restricted and invisible but high levels of radiation remain.
Anzai’s hometown has been altered completely, and he lost the house that was full of memories from time spent with his family. All he wanted was to get his old life back, but it was not possible. That was what the last ten years have been like for Anzai.
“It is said that a single photo can move the world,” Anzai added. “I hope that I can leave a record of the Fukushima that I have witnessed, so that 50 or 100 years on in the future, people can know what happened here.”
Ten years since the disaster, while recovery efforts are progressing, memories have also faded. New generations have been born that do not know what the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and nuclear disaster were like. They will not know what the people who lived there went through. Anzai continues to document the “now” of Fukushima, so that its condition can be carried on into the future for those generations to come as a historical witness of the tragedy and a timeless reminder of the loss.