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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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.
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!