The amazing images from a photoshoot in Fukushima
Several years before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown which hit Fukushima in 2011, I arrived in Japan as a freelance photographer and cameraman for French TV. After the nuclear plant was damaged, I covered the crisis every day for at least six months. On returning to France I got chatting with my colleague, Carlos Ayesta, and we decided to do photo essays on different aspects of the disaster. It was my idea to photograph former residents of what became the no-go zone in their former workplaces, or the restaurants and shops they frequented. About three to four years after the disaster, the government started to allow people back for a certain amount of time, so we were able to photograph them in their former haunts.
This began as a personal project, though we did get funding from Chanel for an exhibition, which is taking place later this year. I’d nurtured quite a few contacts in the Fukushima area – some of my subjects had been interviewed before for news projects – and then we used local fixers. First of all we would try to find a suitable location, then we’d try to track down the people associated with these locations. That was the really tough part. Sometimes it was hard getting past the local bureaucracy; at other times we’d find the person and they wouldn’t want to return. Eventually we shot a mixture of people who were actually in that place when the tsunami struck – such as the hairdresser – and former inhabitants who used to go to that shop or supermarket, but weren’t there on the actual day. None of them were actors or models, however, and they all had interesting stories. We focused on the consequences of the disaster, rather than the catastrophe itself and what caused it. First of all we would try to find a suitable location, then we’d try to track down the people associated with these locations. That was the really tough part
Most of the subjects had already been back to the no-go zone. If the radiation is low, anyone can go back, but as for permanently returning, nearly all of our subjects were against the idea. There is nothing there for them. The government has spent a lot of money on decontamination, but the radiation can still be high.
Many people like the image of the woman in the supermarket best, but my favourite picture is the woman in the printing shop. She was a great person. The supermarket was really impressive, though. We went there in March 2014, three years after the disaster, and the smell was terrible. There was no light except for a small window, so we needed artificial light.
Technically, the project wasn’t that hard. We used Nikon D800 and D810 SLRs, as we love the high resolution, with a 35mm portrait lens. Extra light came from two Bowens flashheads fired through a softbox, and we used natural light as well. For the guy in the restaurant, we put the flashes outside to recreate sunlight coming through the windows. We used minimal post-shoot processing.
The reaction to the series has been very positive, but it’s better known overseas than in Japan. As I mentioned, there will be a major exhibition this summer in Tokyo, so that should raise awareness.
Some people might think it’s a bit sensationalist, which I can understand – if you go to Fukushima today, you can’t see anything wrong in 80 per cent of the prefecture. For our next project, we want to focus on the decontamination workers and their effect on the local economy. Ironically, there are so many clean-up workers, that the economy is still dependent on nuclear energy, even though the reactors have closed.
Guillaume’s own favourite shot, of a print shop worker in her former office For this shot, studio lights were used to recreate sunlight coming through the windows Three years after the disaster, now-spoiled food still lies on the shop shelves