There are few good things that come out a natural disaster or other catastrophe, especially one that claimed many innocent lives. However, it would be far too dark a view to take and say that doom is all we see. Since all photographers are as much observers as they are human beings, by logic all photographers are observers of the human condition. So as long as there are humans left after a catastrophe, we can, even amidst death and despair, observe even the faintest of glimmers of positive humanity — somewhere.
It is lamented, that the response of photographers to the March 11 earthquake to date has been weak. Whether Japanese photographers are losing interest in people. I think some corrective thought is warranted.
First of all, what drives the expectation (or even, desire) for strong photography after a monumental natural disaster? Have we not seen enough fact reporting in the newspapers, the web or television? We well may have, but probably want to see a more personal view and feel that it would be more valid, less matter-of-fact, than the factual depiction of news reporting. We want the story behind the story, or perhaps even the non-story behind the story. Why? What purpose would it possibly serve? To help comprehend the hardship faced by the survivors, some of which have lost everything from material things to friends and family, or even a physical location that was called home? Yes, there is a story that could be told, even though it doesn’t have to, despite the expectation. It is a strong story, no doubt, not because of a skilled narrator, but due a scene already set by prior events. The story is so strong that only few will have the strength themselves to face it, but first they have to actually bother and then come back to tell the tale.
To suspect a loss of interest in people is missing the point. Photographers cannot exist without an interest in people, but it is the interest in other people that matters. Hiromi Tsuchida, born 1939, Kazuo Kitai, born 1944, Hiroh Kikai, born 1945, Rinko Kawauchi, born 1972, Masafumi Sanai, born 1968 — a pattern emerges. We see two totally distinct generations of artists: the Showa, post-war generation and their children of the Heisei period, grown up in material comfort and safety. Their views of the world are entirely different. The post-war artists saw themselves as elements of a social fabric and their view was outward, on society, its values and behaviours. The view of the photographer itself is a reflection of those values. It still is, only that the view direction has changed from outward to inward. Photographers are still interested in people, only that this time people refers primarily to oneself. And since photography is always a reflection, we can still deduce values and behaviours, only that it’s now done the other way round.
The above is not meant as a criticism. Rather it is an assessment on the change of the times, society, its values, priorities and photographers within it. Both approaches can be made to work, and both can fail and produce boring, irrelevant photographs.
Will “the most useful photographs to come out of this disaster not even be taken for years, because the scale of the destruction is so big”? Possibly, but I don’t expect it. Photographers will continue to chronicle their own lives. Unless there is direct personal connection with the affected areas and it is significant enough for the artist to care, we will simply return to what has been there before.