Higuchi focused much of his attention on the growing nuclear power industry. He documented the 16-year legal battle of Kazuyuki Iwasa, the first subcontracted nuclear worker to seek compensation for radiation exposure. Doctors diagnosed his radiation burns, but the courts never affirmed that his illness was work-related.
While researching that story, Higuchi captured one of his most defining photographs, taken during his lone visit to a power plant.
The tour at the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, where Iwasa had worked, took months to arrange. After his initial requests were denied, he moved into a cheap hotel room near the plant and stood at the front gate every day for a week. When that didn’t work, Higuchi asked the power company if he could photograph their oft-touted security measures. That worked.
He arrived at the plant one day in July 1977 with three cameras and 15 rolls of film. He took pictures of the workers’ safety routines, changing out of street clothes into bright orange coveralls and masks, and stripping down to their underwear at the end of their shifts and putting their hands and feet into machines that test their exposure.
He also took photos of the men doing their jobs, including one that he has published many times since, of three workers emerging from a dark hole near the center of the reactor, wearing heavy boots and gas masks, pushing a dolly.
The images he brought back were revelatory to many who had thought that nuclear workers sat in control rooms.
“I was always told these plants were an assembly line of super-modern machines,” said Hideyuki Ban, the other co-director of Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center. “In reality, pipes leak and workers have to go in and clean up with a rag.”
Higuchi said he wanted to show that the latest nuclear technology still relies on pre-modern labor force: “the sweat and the sacrifice of human beings.”
The photos were published in two prominent Japanese magazines that year.
Higuchi received awards from anti-nuclear activists at home and abroad. But over time, it became increasingly difficult to sell his photos in Japan. He supplemented his freelance income by managing an apartment building. Occasionally Japanese tabloid magazines would publish his controversial images of sick workers, running them in between pages of lingerie-clad women.
But since the accident on March 11, he said, his work is getting more attention than ever.
When the Fukushima disaster struck, Higuchi did not grab his camera and drive to the plant; he was exposed to radiation during his last visit to an evacuation zone. But he went to a shelter at an arena outside Tokyo and sneaked past a barricade to interview the families. When a security guard caught him and erased all his photos, the elderly man got into a brief pushing match with the guard.
Higuchi said he is still trying to recover the images on his memory card. He wants to share them with the world.
Special correspondent Tetsuya Kato contributed to this report.