Photographers' Blog

Half a year after disaster

By Kim Kyung-hoon

“Time flies so fast.”

I can’t count how many times I’ve mumbled this phrase while traveling in Sendai and Fukushima last week for the six month anniversary of the March 11th earthquake and disaster that left tens of thousands dead across Japan and caused the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

With the scenes of fear and hopelessness from the areas devastated in March and the hardship of the assignments still vivid in my memory, I feel like the disaster happened just a few weeks ago.

Six months had passed when I hit the road again with my TV colleague Chris Meyers, who traveled to the area with me in March, in order to document how much the tsunami-hit areas have recovered. As I once again traveled around the northern part of Japan, some areas have recovered at a pace I didn’t think possible in March.

Half a year after the disaster from Kim Kyung-Hoon on Vimeo.

For this trip, we drove north from Tokyo to Sendai using the highway system, taking a total of five hours. In March, the same trip took over 25 hours, and involved using a helicopter to fly north to Fukushima. From there we drove using small local roads as many of the major highways had entire chunks of the road missing due to the earthquake.

The port of Sendai, where I documented the disaster’s damage for the first time in March, is once again operating normally. The lines in downtown Sendai to find food, water, and gas have disappeared.
Certainly, those who lost loved ones and property are still suffering. but the damage to property has been tidied up in hopes of providing a guide to those affected to help them manage their sorrow and hardship.

Invisible snow

Invisible Snow from Reuters Tokyo Pictures on Vimeo.

When the Fukushima nuclear power plant exploded, I was in Fukushima covering people who had evacuated from their houses near the plant, as they underwent radiation checks as authorities isolated those who had showed signs of exposure.

The disaster control center in the prefectural government hall in Fukushima city, situated about 63 km (39 miles) north-west of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was chaotic. However, once I stepped out the building, everything around me looked the same in the city and it was difficult to comprehend what was actually happening. People in the city were walking their dogs outside and riding their bicycles on the streets, although lights were out and many places were experiencing cuts in water supplies.

Soon after, I received an evacuation order from my bosses and since then, my coverage was carried out from outside of Fukushima city and I didn’t have a chance to go back there until recently. Even five months after the disaster, it seemed like fresh and shocking news of radiation had been floating up incessantly. Not just reading or hearing about the situation but imagining the amount of pain and stress the people in Fukushima were going through had made me feel depressed.

Clearing the rubble but not the sorrow

By Kim Kyung-hoon

In 2004 I was in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh covering the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster which killed over 230,000 people in several south Asian countries. I met a tired-looking man tackling huge piles of rubble created by the tsunami in a brave effort to clean it up. He had only a shovel to use on the debris stretching on all sides as far as the eye could see. He stopped a moment and bemoaned to me that it would take more than several years to clear the rubble in his country. He also added that a rich country like Japan could clear it quickly with giant heavy construction equipment if a similar disaster happened in Japan. When I left Banda Aceh after my one-month stay there, the scenery going from the Reuters temporary base to the airport was almost the same as what I had seen on my first day there, and dead bodies still lay on the streets.

Last weekend, I traveled to Japan’s tsunami–destroyed towns again with my colleague to cover Japan’s traditional festival obon, when families welcome back the spirits of the dead.

It was five months after they had been struck by the March 11 magnitude 9.0 quake and huge tsunami. I could see that the Indonesian man’s insight was correct.

Fishing with film

By Carlos Barria

In the “old” days, back before digital photography, photographers used to lug around tons of extra luggage, portable dark rooms, and set up shop in their hotel bathrooms. Or they would send their film — by motorcycle, car or even plane — to somebody else in a hotel or office close by to develop it, scan it and file. Or they might have to scramble and look for a lab in the middle of a crisis, in a foreign country. I don’t think my colleague Joe Skipper speaks Spanish, but I know that when he covered a showdown at Colombia’s Justice Ministry in the 80s, he learned how to say, “Mas amarillo!,” “More yellow!


North America chief photographer Gary Hershorn arrives to the Vancouver international airport with all his photo lab luggage. REUTERS/Stringer

I began my career as a photographer at the beginning of the digital era, working at La Nacion in Argentina. There, in 2000, I had a front row seat to the transition. I shot film myself, but for a very short period.

Robot Paro comforts the elderly in Fukushima

By Kim Kyung-hoon

When I covered Fukushima’s nuclear crisis in March, the first radiation evacuees who I encountered were elderly people who had fled a nursing home which was located near the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant which was leaking nuclear radiation.

On that night, most of the elderly who could not move well due to old age spent a cold night on a temporary shelter’s hard floor.

Their scraggly bodies, the nasty smell from those who were not able to relieve themselves, and faraway looks of the those who had dementia have been impressed onto my memory, one scene out of many from this tragedy which I will never forget.

Crash test for dummies

At Toyota Motor’s safety technology media tour on Thursday, the most photogenic objects were not the cars; they were the crash-test dummies. Throughout the day at the Higashifuji Technical Center at the foot of Mount Fuji, Toyota showed us its latest safety features and research facilities, including a head-on collision between a Vitz hatchback and Toyota’s flagship Crown sedan, and a driving simulator that would make NASA proud.

Among the high-tech safety gadgets were the 21 crash-test dummies, lined up neatly in a row, with names like Bio RID II, SID-IIS and THOR. The dummies come in all sizes and shapes to simulate the impact on drivers and passengers from 6-month-old babies to pregnant women. (She comes with a mock uterus with built-in sensors.)

Even though the dummies don’t particularly look impressive, with plastic limbs and wires hanging loose, they cost more than Toyota’s highest-end car model, averaging around 12 million yen ($150,000 U.S. dollars). The dearest of them, called “Hybrid III AM50 High-Meka Dummy” has a price to match its hefty name: 200 million yen ($2.5 million), an official explained. It’s all part of Toyota’s aim to reduce road-related deaths and serious injuries. Back in the 80s, they used to use live pigs for safety tests, strapping the swines into cars with seatbelts, the official said, sotto voce. Today’s pigs have stricter animal rights laws – and the crash-test dummies – to thank.

Back in the nuclear zone

Fukushima prefecture’s Kawauchi residents who evacuated from their village near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were allowed to return home briefly last Tuesday to pick up personal belongings. This was the first government-led operation for the evacuees.

Kawauchi village is one of the cities, towns and villages designated by the government in late April as a legally binding no-entry zone within a 20km (12 miles) radius of the plant.

Clad from head to toe in white protective suits, they got off the buses and received a screening test for signs of nuclear radiation at a village gymnasium after a two-hour trip inside the no-entry zone.

A daughter’s last goodbye

Six-year-old Wakana Kumagai began to run from the car when she arrived at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

She had come to meet her father.

On that day Wakana attended an entrance ceremony for her elementary school. Afterward she went with her mother and older brother to the grave site. She showed off her dress and bright red school satchel as she described the entrance ceremony to her father. But her father, Kazuyuki, slept in the soil.

He was only 31 when he died.

On March 11, Wakana’s mother Yoshiko received a phone call from husband, Kazuyuki, just after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. “A tsunami is coming. Take the children and go to the elementary school (shelter). I will go later too” he told her. Yoshiko picked up her two children in the car and, as they made their way toward the elementary school, the car was swallowed up by the first wave of the tsunami. Miraculously the car doors didn’t open with the force of the tsunami and the three family members arrived at Omagari elementary school. The school was a makeshift shelter for those who had survived in the town that was now covered with seawater. The family awaited the arrival of Kazuyuki.

Cherry blossoms spring smiles in devastation

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Even this year, cherry blossom season bloomed in Japan.

The lives of us Japanese have changed completely in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the constant fear of radiation following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. So much so that we forgot the coming of spring.

Cherry blossoms on a tree damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato are seen next to fish near a damaged fish-processing plant in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011. The fish was likely washed up from the nearby plant.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

I returned to cover the stricken area again at the beginning of April. The huge piles of debris that were visible immediately after the quake and tsunami were slowly being managed. Roads had appeared again and gradually I saw that there was a town.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The town which appeared was still a world of monotone. But light pink flowers, that elicit a feeling of excitement within all Japanese, appeared in the black and white world.

Japan’s nuclear crisis and my life

As a Reuters photographer, I have covered many disasters and incidents over the last ten years but these things had little direct affect on my life. Just like the saying: “The photographer must be taken out of the picture”, I was a third party in most of these cases. By and large, those catastrophes had nothing to do with my personal life. Once my assignment was over, I used to go back to my normal life and switch from emergency mode.

But last month’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in Japan was different. I am not exempt from the fear caused by the disaster nor am I immune to the threat of the invisible nuclear radiation.

Since I deployed to near Fukushima prefecture to cover the nuclear crisis story last month, two palm size radiation monitors have been added to my MUST-carry items along with my camera equipment. The first thing I have to do after waking up in the morning is not drink a cup of coffee but instead check the radiation level. The number on the device has been the main criteria on whether I can get out of the car once inside the 20km evacuation zone from the Fukushima nuclear plant.