Two visual styles emerge from the disasters in Japan. Flooding the Internet, arriving days after the massive earthquake and lethal tsunami, are immediate visions of horror, inundation, muck and destruction, filmed with a jerky, restless motion, with rapid shifts in focus and detail. A mix of morbid fascination and a strange sense of obligation — that it is our duty to watch— quickly send these videos viral, even as the story shifts to fear of nuclear meltdown and radiation leaks. The nuclear disaster, unfolding in slow motion, is seen with a distinctly different style: the steady, fixed view of a faraway industrial plant, hazy, vague and remote.
Taken together, both styles are a lesson in democracy and civil order, a study in how we process the world through the camera, and how the camera has formed and recorded the best and worst of one of the world’s most vibrant, industrial nations.
Amateur footage shows boats being overturned in the fishing port of Miyako, Japan and cars being carried away in Kamaishi city. (March 13)
There's been more trouble at Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant. With cooling systems down, fuel rods have been exposed at the facility's Unit 2 reactor, and there was an explosion at Unit 3. (March 14)
The two ways of capturing visual data suggest a powerful contrast between palpable, tactile, physical forms of danger and fears that are remote and difficult to assess and quantify. The fixed camera showing the Fukushima Daiichi complex, savaged by the tsunami and now subject to explosions and potential meltdown, is a depersonalized view of danger. There seems to be no person or human agent operating the camera, which records mechanically, unceasingly and without comment. The static image, changing only when another blast rocks the wounded plant, is reminiscent of other slow-
motion disasters, such as the long standoff and swift destruction of the Branch Davidian cult compound at Waco, Tex., in 1993. The style has the monotony of surveillance — obsessive and unyielding.
The videos of the tsunami, however, offer powerful evidence of the people holding the camera, capturing not just their voices, and the ambient sounds of destruction and grief, but the way in which the human eye takes in a rapidly moving and changing event. The ocean breaching a sea wall in Miyako, carrying boats and cars on its flood, surging through parking lots and overwhelming roads and buildings, is filled with raw detail but a confused sense of time and place. The videographer is distracted by new and unfolding forms of destruction, chasing the worst of an unbelievably bad moment in time.
Neither style has much to do with how horror and fear is packaged for entertainment. On the Web, the tsunami videos are often tagged as “raw footage,” and it is the very rawness of them that makes them believable. The elaborate choreography of camera work that establishes a place and clear sequence of events — the essential visual rhetoric of Hollywood — isn’t possible. And efforts to edit these raw films for greater impact almost always produce something that isn’t nearly as visceral. Images of the nuclear power plant, by contrast, are too grainy and far away to compete with the carefully constructed intimacy of television or film.
The existence of both forms of video is directly related to the relative prosperity and the stable democracy of Japan, whose people (in better times) are figures of gentle ridicule for their camera obsession. Even in the midst of a long-term economic slowdown, Japan’s digital-camera industry dominates world markets, and even in the middle of a vast natural disaster, videos of the tsunami often capture other people making videos of the tsunami.