Sitting in a freezing Tokyo February, bleary-eyed, attending early morning online tutorials to thrash out my ideas for an impending 'Re-think' project I had no idea that it would ultimately take the form it did. At that point, no-one around me could possibly have imagined what was to come a month later.
The consensus choice of ‘portraits’ as a loose focus for the Re-think project was in itself a rethink of my own practice and perhaps the one component part of photojournalistic practice with which I felt least comfortable, and for that same reason worth tackling head on. As my latent interest in documenting musical subcultures had slowly emerged, I had chosen to document the Japanese Rockabilly scene; another imported, hardcore, niche musical scene of which the Japanese seem so fond. I wanted to offer a Re-think of a scene that is stereotyped as something vaudeville, something for which a Google search only provides tired pictures of eighties ‘Rockers’ (as they are known in Japan) dancing with their comic book pompadours for amused tourists in a pedestrian area of Harajuku, Tokyo’s uber-hip schoolgirl fashion district. The true Rockabilly scene in Japan is rather a distinctly blue collar lifestyle, lived through a love of authentic clothes, hair, cars, clubs, music and even vintage furniture. It is a scene which by its very aesthetic nature requires a commitment to setting oneself outside the mainstream of Japanese society, where fashion, and in particular hairstyle, immediately sets the wearer apart as an ‘other’ within. I had begun to shoot some of its prominent members in a portrait style, and read around the idea of subcultures through seminal texts like Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. The project had seemed that it might develop into a larger scale photographic undertaking which would ultimately investigate the almost pathological fascination which many Japanese have with recreating in minute detail various musical subcultures and styles imported from the UK and America, which have absolutely no sociological or cultural roots in modern Japanese culture or history.
Until 2.46pm on March 11th. As I was leaving work, ironically to visit another potential subject for Re-think, Tokyo shook as a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the northeastern Tohoku region and Japan’s worst natural disaster since records began quickly unfurled. Unleashing a tsunami of unimaginable proportions on over 400km of coastline, less than 30 minutes later, it had completely wiped out large swathes of the map which that same morning had happily existed as industrial port areas, small coastal towns and fishing communities.
Having experienced many things in Japan, earthquakes were nothing new, and just as there was always a critical split-second moment during the regular tremors when it is inevitable to wonder if this is ‘the one’, they had had never been anything more than just tremors and were simply part of life. However as the realisation of what was finally happening - ‘for real’ this time - dawned that afternoon, the much vaunted reputation for ‘safety’ which Japan has seemed suddenly and irreparably damaged, and as the extent of the disaster began to flood across news screens, this became only more pronounced. There was a sense of palpable fear even in Tokyo as millions of people walked massive distances home that evening in the face of the city’s famously precise public transport grounding to a complete standstill. The emerging nuclear crisis and continued aftershocks left the streets eerily empty in the ensuing days, and panic buying began to close petrol stations and empty shelves in supermarkets of essential foodstuffs.
As the exodus of Tokyo’s gaijin (= foreigner: lit. outside-person) community gathered pace I found myself faced with a dilemma. Were I living in Ireland and a similar disaster was unfolding in Scotland it would never occur to me to fly to France or Germany indefinitely as many people amazingly upped and ‘took refuge’ in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia as well as their home countries. By that same token, until the British Embassy officials appeared at my door in full nuclear radiation suits, I had no intention of abandoning the city and country which I had made my home, which has given me so much and from which I have learned and taken so much. My dilemma rather was whether to rush forward unprepared and unthinking with my camera, and to try and ‘make my name’ documenting an unprecedented human disaster in postwar Japan, literally on my doorstep. At the risk of being thrown in the sin-bin of photojournalism however, this simply felt wrong: exploitative, manipulative, like I was taking advantage of a horrific tragedy simply because of geographical proximity and relative ease of access. So I stayed where I was. In Japan. In Tokyo. At home. And I waited to see what would happen.
One thing that did happen was that suddenly Re-thinking the Rockabilly scene seemed, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “no longer...so damn relevant”. The general uncertainty surrounding transport and food, and with people’s attention turned to raising money and supplies for the relief effort, and in some cases still trying to contact friends or family in affected areas made it seem indulgent and somewhat inappropriate to be phoning people to arrange to take their portraits for a project to present a fuller picture of the Japanese Rockabilly scene.
With the continued exodus, fuelled by the sensationalism and hysteria of English-language news media abroad, in local parlance the gaijin soon became ‘fly-jin’, and the ease with which a country so many professed to love living in was so unsentimentally abandoned made me only more determined to do the opposite. With a couple of friends I made a first venture north in a rented car to the small port town of Shiogama, near Sendai, the largest city in Miyagi prefecture and closest to the epicentre on March 11th. We spent two days working in a volunteer centre, in small work gangs shoveling endless sacks of putrid black mud which the tsunami had deposited in its wake, and helping local people empty shops and houses of years of furniture and treasured possessions, to pick through in streets and gardens the minute, pathetic amounts of what was salvageable. On driving into a now peaceful harbour, scenes of a huge pleasure boat stranded limply on a wall was a stark reminder of what had come before.
This trip further increased my desire to do something practical, something with immediate impact at ground level and eventually led me to volunteer with an NGO for a week-long mission in one of the worst hit towns of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Almost 50% of the town had been inundated by the tsunami; on the date I arrived six weeks after March 11th it had already suffered a devastating loss of over 2,500 people, with the same number still unaccounted for. I spent a week camping on the university sports field in rain, sun and snow, and working each day in a team of 8 people, shoveling mud and debris, gutting houses and shops. Eating tinned meals heated on a gas stove, joining in the Japanese morning tradition of rajio taiso (radio exercise) and marveling anew every evening at the sheer scale of what I had seen in the day, and the incredible courage and resilience of the lucky survivors who had no choice but to try and begin to reconstruct some kind of life for themselves, their families, and their community.
And so I came to Rethink Re-think. I had to rethink the Re-think theme of ‘community’, working within a community that had been decimated beyond recognition. I had to rethink the Re-think theme of ‘portraits’ in a place that had had the world’s cameras forced in the face of their tragedy for weeks. Primarily going as a volunteer, and not as a photojournalist, I had to rethink the mantra to ‘get the story’ and instead chose to document the experience of volunteering through what I saw around me. Using short breaks in the working day, and time spent waiting around for transport to and from the campsite, I was able to document through environmental portraits a community devastated and destroyed. The more I photographed however, a community became visible which was, in the face of its tragedy refusing to lie down and the smallest yet significant signs of renewal were, like the annual cherry blossoms defiantly blooming, beginning to force themselves through; a table once caked in mud under a pile of furniture, cleaned and ready again for food, a new light switch, proof that electricity supply had been re-established, a fruit shop open again for business, a grand piano once tossed mockingly around by the tsunami, righted again, and at some point in the future, ready to play.