“Black Tsunami”: Interview with James Whitlow Delano about Documenting the Devastation of the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami

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Eric’s Note: I am honored to share this interview with James Whitlow Delano, a talented photojournalist whose work has been awarded intentionally, including the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma (Myanmar). His most recent iPad book Black Tsunami (FotoEvidence) documenting the Japan tsunami and nuclear crisis took a 2012 PX3 Award.

James is now trying to get his “Black Tsunami” book published as a hardcover book. Check out the Kickstarter page and support this noble cause, and also check out my interview with him below.

1. Great to have you James. For the viewers who may not be familiar with you and your work, can you share how you got started in photojournalism?

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An ocean going ship sits where it came to rest in the debris of the great 25m high (82 ft.) tsunami that hit Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture following the massive earthquake that struck under the sea off of Japan.

I came to reportage/photojournalism through street photography. The greatest influences on my photography have been street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and others. The transition to photojournalism was to focus a street photography style photographing on the streets on a specific subject.

But my photography background is more complex than that. I assisted some of the greats in New York and Los Angeles in
the 80’s and early 90’s like Annie Leibovitz, Joel Meyerowitz, and Michel Comte. Each have taken different routes but we all shared in the legacy of street photography and all referenced the photographers I mentioned above. All owned Leicas.

In fact, it was Joel Meyerowitz who introduced me to Leica M cameras and I use them to this day.

2. What brought you to Japan, and how is it to photograph there versus the states?

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An elderly woman shuffles through a city wiped off the face of the earth by the 25m (82 ft.) high tsunami which arrived 30 minutes after the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. In Rikuzen-Takata 10,547 residents, nearly half the population of roughly 26,000 people, are living in evacuation shelters. Japan Self Defence Forces say they have found 300 to 400 bodies there. About 5,000 of the city’s houses were submerged by the quake-triggered tsunami.

I was living in Hollywood during the time of the Rodney King riots The work I had been doing there had pretty much run its course. A friend returned from Japan and said what an amazing place it was. Japan was kind of in the same place China is today. It was the emerging economic superpower. I decided to move there. That also happened to be the time that China’s development hit overdrive. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

3. You are currently working with FotoEvidence to produce a hard copy book of your work, “Black Tsunami: Japan 2011” about the devastation after the great tsunami. What first lead you to documenting this tragedy?

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Route 6 completely failed and crumbled away during the massive 11 March 2011 earthquake at the main southern police checkpoint for the 20 km (12.4 miles) nuclear no-entry zone. Hironomachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

I have lived in Japan for 20 years. It is my adopted home and now I have family there on my wife’s side. There was never any question about whether I would document this history changing tragedy. It is personal, affecting the country I live, affecting my food supply and potentially our health.

So, the recovery is of personal interest and I hope I bring a different point of view to interpreting events.

4. What do you want your viewers to get out of “Black Tsunami” and feel?

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Rescue workers pause from work for a collective prayer for the dead a week after the precise moment the tsunami struck Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The number of missing or dead has topped 26,000 and the confirmed death toll has risen to over 10,000 people.

I would like to bring a residue of the tsunami to the viewer. I want to place the viewer on the ground and understand the scale of the disaster and the intensity of living through it.

Also, people tend to forget quickly. I have recorded raw survival mode of the early days after the tsunami struck, because I already felt those emotions fading; the worries, the breakdown of supply lines, the lack of heat, rudimentary shelter and the retention of order despite entire villages being flattened.

5. Can you talk a bit more about the symbolism of the cherry blossoms in your book?

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Cherry blossoms have open on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.

I was standing with a Japanese friend in Ofunato in front of a traditional house that had been ripped from its foundation and deposited in front of us, there was a tug boat that came to rest there about 1 km from the sea.

There were two cherry trees, bare for winter with clothes strung in the branches. My friend commented that they reminded her of her grandmother’s description of Tokyo during the WWII firebombing.

I decided I would return to see if these trees bloomed during o-hanami because of the symbolism that already exists in Japanese culture for rebirth and the transience of everything in life. So, I happened to be in Fukushima slipping inside the no-entry zone when I found out that the cheery blossoms up there were in bloom.

6. What was the most difficult part of photographing for this project, both photographically and emotionally?

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Father brushes his daughter’s teeth at an unheated evacuation center for survivors of the tsunami in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, where 700 people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, live. There is no running water at the middle school which serves as an evacuation center. So, water must be used sparingly. The cold comes down hardest on children and seniors.

The hardest part without question was to listen to people’s stories about lost loved ones and survivor’s guilt. The
residents, I always remembered, were just a week before, normal people living normal lives. People in trauma are often viewed as if they are somehow of a different realm, if you know what I mean, but all of us are one very bad day away from being in exactly the same situation.

I met a man who told us how the first wave had come and his mother wanted to return to her house because her life savings were inside. Finally he relented and she went back to the house but the second, larger wave came before she could get out of the house. The house was swept away. Her body had not yet been found. He told us, in painful, tearful candor, how his family called him a murderer for allowing to return to the house, resulting in her death. That is just not easy to listen to, and harder still to help him to believe that he should not blame himself for her death. I will never forget him.

7. What is some advice you would give to other photographers who wish to pursue their own documentary projects?

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Portrait of a young boy found several kilometers inland from the sea, swept there by the great 25m high (82 ft.) tsunami where it was exposed to the snow, Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The fate of the young boy in the photograph is unknown.

I always encourage emerging photographers to have the confidence to trust their own vision, and develop their own distinct photographic style. I also suggest that they produce their own stories, on their own and present complete stories so that editors will see how they view the world and their ability to carry out a project to fruition.

8. What are some last words you would like to mention that I haven’t asked?

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There was no escape. Resident of Rikuzen-Takata walks at the high water mark of the great tsunami several kilometers from the sea and still lumber is piled up on rooftops. The rest of the city was completely leveled. The tsunami that arrived 30 minutes after one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history, Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. In Rikuzen-Takata 10,547 residents, nearly half the population of roughly 26,000 people, are living in evacuation shelters. Japan Self Defence Forces say they have found 300 to 400 bodies there. About 5,000 of the city’s houses were submerged by the quake-triggered tsunami.

There are times when a massive event will visit upon places that are important to us. It is more important at times like this than ever to go out and document our world and bring an informed point of view so that others can comprehend what is going on. In my career, this was a time where I truly believed that my work was able to affect change. The collective work of the many photographers who brought back images of the tsunami and nuclear disaster meant that more relief funds were raise for the recovery of residents there.

Black Tsunami Kickstarter Video

Biography

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James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for 20 years.  His work has been awarded internationally: the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma (Myanmar), etc..

His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China and work from Japan Mangaland have shown at several Leica Galleries in Europe. Empire was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art.  The Mercy Project / Inochi his charity photo book for hospice received the PX3 Gold Award and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts.  His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents from Visa Pour L’Image, Rencontres D’Arles; to Noorderlicht.

His new iPad book, Black Tsunami (FotoEvidence) documenting the Japan tsunami and nuclear crisis took a 2012 PX3 Award.  Delano is a grantee for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Follow James

 Support “Black Tsunami”

At the time of publishing, Black Tsunami has less than 15 days to go to reach its goal (and is almost halfway there!). Help support James and make his dream come true by donating! If you have ever wanted to accomplish something, the more you give the more will come back to you. It is all about karma.

I already pledged $100 USD to make this happen. Every little bit counts! Open up your heart and let’s show how generous the street photography is!

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