LA LETTRE DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
Tohoku by Martin Hladik
Although Japan’s March 11 triple disaster is long gone from front-page news, conditions there remain dire. Tokyo-based, Czech photographer Martin Hladik is hoping to maintain awareness of the disaster’s effects, and the residents struggling to survive. His exhibition titled “TOHOKU 2011: Photographs by Martin Hladik,” shown recently at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, displayed works shot during his disaster coverage. But the show’s purpose reached beyond the images as a means to support two teenage sisters orphaned by the tsunami. Hladik met Manaka,13, and Sakaki,16, in the town of Rikuzentakata. They lost their single mother and grandmother, and are still living in crowded conditions with their aunt. (They’re not in contact with their father.)
100% of the photo purchase price is going to a fund that will help cover the girls’ living and educational expenses. Photos can still be purchased through the site: http://www.tohoku2011.com Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. are backing the project as part of their own efforts to support children orphaned by the disaster. If the project grows, Hladik is hoping to support other orphans in the area. I spoke with Martin about the project and the Tohoku region, still far from recovery.
Lucy Birmingham: What motivated you to have the “Tohoku 2011″ exhibition?
Martin Hladik: I am already 10 years in Japan and somehow I feel connected to those people [in Tohoku]. I wanted to take pictures and bring attention to the continuing problems there. Eventually I could do a little bit more [with the orphan project] which is a kind of pleasure. It’s just not taking pictures, but also support for those who need it.
L.B: When did you first go up to the northeast disaster-hit region?
M.H: [After the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosions] I moved my family to Nagoya because I was afraid of the radiation. I didn’t believe the news from the government. After this I was able to put my wife and children on a special plane to Czechoslovakia. I then tried to drive up to Tohoku but there was no gasoline, and no more rental cars available. Finally after one week I was able to get a car. I was working for a French photo agency called PixPlanete. The first two weeks there was quite a lot of interest in my images but after one month there was a huge drop because of [news about] Libya. After this I couldn’t sell anything.
L.B: I read that you had never seen devastation like that before.
M.H: I am not a photographer of disasters. Definitely that’s the biggest devastation I have ever seen. I went to Kosovo [in 2000] at the end of the war, and many people had died. But there were not too many damaged houses so it was a little different. But it was also kind of similar [to Tohoku] because there were many stressed people. They were not sure what the other side was going to do, if some commando would come and shoot all of them. They were not sure what the UN soldiers were doing; on which side they were on. Of course they are supposed to save everybody but it doesn’t work that way. At that time it was more like discrimination of Serbs. It was my young age dream to be a war photographer. I experienced it and realized it was not what I wanted to be, especially because I saw the business behind it.
L.B: What is the situation there now?
M.H: The cities are cleaner but there are many people still squeezed either in an evacuation center or in houses with other families. Very few people have work so there’s a real financial problem. Everyone has a lot of stress. There are kids in Tohoku who have not said one single word after they lost their parents. They need good counseling to get over such stress.
L.B: They’re also battling radiation fears.
M.H: Yes, and there’s also huge pollution from asbestos and chemicals. [Until the 1970s] Japan was mixing asbestos with concrete. So the dust from the old broken concrete contains huge amounts of asbestos. However, the biggest pollution came from chemical factories working at the time when the tsunami came. They can’t burn the tons of leftover debris because it filled with these chemicals. It looks like chemical pollution could be an even bigger problem than the radiation.
L.B: Your photo of the cremation ceremony is very unusual.
M.H: I didn’t know that it was taboo in Japan to photograph a funeral or cremation ceremony. The family said it was alright to photograph. Those two kids lost their parents because they went to an evacuation center in the middle of Rikuzentaka that was positioned too low. It got flooded by the tsunami. There were 300 people. All of them died. [In the photo] the boy is 14 and the girl is either 17 or 18.
L.B: Where were they at the time?
M.H: They were at school, like most kids because it was between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. So most of them were okay. Everyone had about 30-minutes to escape before the tsunami came. People who died didn’t believe that the waves could go so far because it broke most of the estimates. There were signs telling people they were safe at a certain distance. Those signs were a big mistake. When the wave reached the coast it was able to go through in 5 minutes. It was that fast.
L.B: How were you able to get corporate support for your orphan project?
M.H: Toyota was quite interested from the beginning. They were the ones who enabled me to develop this project. They are giving something like 300 million yen for orphans in Tohoku so it fit to their strategy. They also gave money to Red Cross. They do not advertise these things. You know, I couldn’t imagine in another country some company giving money and not telling everybody about it. Toyota’s support in Tohoku has been quiet, which is kind of nice. I like it.
L.B: Is the orphan project a long-term commitment for you?
M.H: I am a person living by present time, not thinking (or unable to think) too much about the future. I would call this [project] as normal solidarity among people. We Czechs, people from a very small country, have experienced betrayal: given to Hilter, then to Stalin, and suffering 40 years under Russian rule. We were happy to get any help from outsiders who never forgot there are people in East Europe who need help. I think after I heard about this misery from my parents and grandparents I could understand those who were unlucky enough to be thrown into such a shitty situation. Without help from outside they will stay and die in it.
L.B: There are so many needy people in Tohoku. Why did you choose orphans?
M.H: I have small kids and just imagining them losing their mother is terrible enough. Even though I know this happens to children every minute in other parts of the world, here in Japan I felt I could help a bit. The project is really small…but I believe that investing a bit of our life to help kids is a good investment.
Interview realised by Lucy Birmingham
Original post: Tohoku by Martin Hladik