Seeing tragedy in Japan, through the camera’s double lens

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)

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)

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.

With each new epochal natural disaster, the plugged-in, camera-saturated world produces a newest “most photographed” event. But the camera, an essential part of the postwar industrial boom in consumer electronics that helped build Japan’s wealth, plays a unique role in the country and its relation to disaster. Every country has a surfeit of cameras, but Japan has used the camera to re­cord extremes of its own suffering and benefited from the camera to build wealth and stability.

Despite strict U.S. efforts to control images of the nuclear catastrophes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the camera eventually brought home the pure destructive power of the atom bomb, photographs indelibly linked to the birth of modern Japan, a parable of past militarism to chasten the stewards of peace. Images made by Japanese photographers such as Yosuke Yamahata, in particular, became widely circulated, capturing the unthinkable. They not only depicted the particular horror of nuclear warfare — “her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces,” a survivor recalled in a famous New Yorker article written by John Hersey — they raised powerful questions about whether nuclear misery is any different from other forms of destruction.

Images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reduced to pulverized rubble, don’t look much different than the images of Hamamatsu, a mid-size city devastated by traditional aerial bombardment, made by John Swope, a U.S. photographer who captured the tragedy of Japan without ever visiting the sites of the world’s first military use of nuclear power. Paradoxically, images of nuclear destruction did two things: They helped develop a powerful sense of horror and aversion about nuclear warfare, and yet established visual equivalence between forms of destruction. That sense that misery is misery, no matter the cause, has challenged people (and governments) to think rationally about both the danger and hope offered by nuclear power.

More than 65 years after Hiroshima, and once again in Japan, the world confronts a similar question: Which is more frightful? A wave of water and mud sweeping away everything in its path? Or a distant industrial facility, emitting blasts of radiation that experts can quantify but not contextualize or explain in a way that makes them comprehensible to the vast majority of people?

With the use of the atom bomb against civilian population areas in Japan, the world birthed a new kind of fear, the invisible and terrifying power of radiological poisoning and environmental destruction. This fear bound people to their governments in new and powerful ways. Only the government could manage these forces, and often it seemed only governments had the expertise to explain the dangers and opportunities of nuclear power. One had to trust the government in ways that went beyond any individual’s ability to calculate danger.

The contrast between the two visual styles of disaster in Japan not only recalls the country’s past as the first ground zero — images of the tsunami aftermath superficially look like Hiroshima, while images of the nuclear plant recall the long decades of suffering unleashed by the atom bomb — it reminds us how far we have yet to go to make sense of fear in the modern world. Repeated viewing of tsunami videos, with their strong sense of human agency and suffering, offers a chance to confront age-old fears of bodily destruction and an unstable world of random events. The static camera shot of a nuclear power plant offers an overlay of fears of the unknown, including the fear that one’s own government may or may not tell the truth.

Amartya Sen, the economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, has argued that democracy not only has universal value, it has unique “instrumental” benefits. Stable, modern democracies don’t suffer famine because they are, among other things, more transparent and their governments are more directly accountable and responsive to the people. Democracies prove themselves during moments of crisis.

“When things go fine and everything is routinely good, this instrumental role of democracy may not be particularly missed,” Sen has written. “It is when things get fouled up, for one reason or another, that the political incentives provided by democratic governance acquire great practical value.”

The images of tsunami destruction that have fascinated and horrified the world are some of the most visually compelling scenes ever captured on video or film. But the drama of modern Japan — first to suffer nuclear destruction, yet heavily dependent on nuclear energy — is more viscerally pres­ent in the strange, haunting, grainy images of a faraway nuclear plant. Even if the technology was available, this camera could never have done its work during the last extreme crisis of nuclear power, at Cher­no­byl, in the paranoid and authoritarian Soviet Union. It’s relentless, visually monotonous image, offering a kind of transparency into the crisis, is the best hope Japan has.

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