Yumi Goto: Curating Fukushima

An interview with Sarah Rhodes

Yumi, tell me about your photo consultancy work?

I am currently preparing my new multi-photographic space in Tokyo, which will be the platform to launch some of my projects (exhibitions, publishing, photographers in residence, photography book library). It will give me more opportunities. As a photo consultant, I work with companies, organisations, charities and photo festivals to advise, curate, edit and generally share my ideas.

How have you been involved in curating and editing the images coming out of Fukushima?

I have never been to the Tohoku area, including Fukushima, until the great earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster happened. My first project was the 3/11 Tsunami Photo Project – an iPhone/iPad photo app developed to raise money for disaster relief. I had previously worked with the Japanese publishing company Kodansha. The guy in charge wanted to make a photography book app. I was assigned to be the photo editor and invited 14 photographers to contribute to the project. The photographers also sent an audio message to play while looking at their pictures. The app costs $1.99 to buy and all proceeds go to the Japanese Red Cross Society. It is still available through Apple iTunes.

When I was editing those images, I was in Bangkok, and never thought I would involve so much myself in the Tohoku aftermath. When I edited the images for the app, I was surprised to find there were only a few images from Fukushima. Very little images were available then because major foreign and domestic media companies had ordered their correspondents and stringers not to enter or even leave Japan.

© Robert Knoth

Once access opened up and images started to come out, suddenly there were a lot of photos. The area was so hot in that the area became everyone’s interest but photographers wanted to go in anyway.  Everyone was starting a project on Fukushima. Fukushima became so popular amongst them. People started forgetting the tsunami devastated area, as if their interests now only focused on Fukushima.

In September 2011, Robert Knoth contacted me, as we had worked together once for another photobook project. He and Greenpeace International wanted to have an exhibition in Japan to support a big campaign in the lead-up to the first anniversary. Until I saw his images, I was not so sure about the exhibition. It was very short time to prepare and there was a flood of images by local and foreign photographers who came to the area for a very brief time. The pictures were mostly their visual documents –– all the images look very similar.

My first impression of Knoth’s images were different. If you were in Fukushima even once, those were the scenes and landscapes you would see. I thought he knew exactly what happened and what would be in the future. His images were thought-provoking. Nature is there, growing itself and still co-existing in the environment that people have created but now abandoned. Just as if it has gone back to the ancient time, before people settled there (pic 1). This is what happened to Fukushima – you can’t really see it or visualise it. It seems just normal but you can feel something is wrong.

My personal ongoing project that I am interested in is seeing photographs by photographers who have an intimate relationship with the subject matter. I didn’t expect to find a photographer who was right on my research from Fukushima but I found him online. Toshiya Watanabe is a Fukushima native. His hometown, Namie, has become a no-entry zone located only 8km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.  I thought he should have a strong will –– more than any other photographer who covered Fukushima, to expose those images and raise awareness.

After Knoth’s exhibition, I was offered to use a shophouse space for a month of March in fashion district centre of Tokyo. I decided immediately to do an exhibition on Fukushima. There was a very little time to prepare, I titled the exhibition “Fukushimarch”. I wanted people to keep coming back to see the show over the month of March, so they would not forget what happened last year in Fukushima. Watanabe had not expected to have an exhibition of his work to mark the first anniversary. I also invited two other photographers: Daichi Koda, an aspiring Japanese photographer who has just published a book called Bokyaku on Fukushima after 3/11 and James Whitlow Delano, who has lived in Japan for a decade. He had published an iPad app, Black Tsunami, which included earthquake and tsunami coverage. I wanted to have the balance of three viewpoints to bring as many people as possible. Each photographer had a solo show for 10 days so we had three openings and artist talk events.

I didn’t do much for selecting images for the Fukushimarch exhibition but the space was not made for a gallery so I made it a temporary hanging space, like a darkroom. We used strings and clips then displayed photos as if the images had just been printed in the darkroom.

Pic 1 © Daichi Koda: 10th April, Tomioka-cho, Hutaba-gun. Approx distance from Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear plant: 11km (6.8miles)

You were quoted in The Invisible Photographer Asia (6 March 2012) as saying: “Many people have seen pictures from Fukushima, but many images are a stereotype. Maybe [seeing the disaster from] a different perspective will help people understand it better.”  What is the stereotypical image coming out of the Fukushima disaster?

Collapsed buildings, abandoned pets and cattle and their bodies, empty houses and remained household goods and so on…

Images from the disaster area often misinterpret reality, since they maybe photographed without further investigation; so I think the photographer’s statement should be really important. Only understanding from pictures and captions (if it has only dates and locations) is actually dangerous, I think. Especially the Fukushima issue, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t see much from the images. Of course images should come with quality but they also need accurate information to help people understand the nuclear and radioactive issue.

In March this year you curated the exhibition Fukushimarch: Fukushima, March, Photo Month by three photographers –– Daichi Koda, Toshiya Watanabe and James Whitlow Delano. Can you describe their different approaches?

Pic 2 © James Whitlow Delaney. Fukushima Nuke Exclusion Zone 001 from the series A Walkabout Inside and Around Fukushima’s Nuclear No-Entry Zone / Now The Only Way In

Toshiya Watanabe went back for the first time after his hometown became a no-entry zone. He was only allowed three hours but he used two hours to photograph to capture locations and his neighbours. He knew how the places used to be and he missed them so much. Now he is making diptych images at three months and six months after the disaster. There is one picture taken of his mother visiting a grave before 3/11 and then after 3/11 (pic 3).  So all the images he photographed had a personal attachment. I appreciated the fact that he brought us those images.

There are more other photographers I would have liked to include. Koda is Japanese native yet he can’t see things as Mr. Watanabe does. Based in the Tokyo region, Koda photographed the area with a different eye on a medium-format camera (pic 1). He made a connection with local people and photographed them. Like Watanabe, he also used colour.  Delano has been based in Japan over a decade but he’s an outsider in a sense. He shoots in black and white. It is ironic that the foreigner made such intimate look and photograph (pic 2). I wanted people to know that even those not directly involved in the disaster could care enough to raise awareness through photography.

Pic 3 © Toshiya Watanabe. “Visiting my family grave” from the series Thereafter. August 2006 / June 2012. 8km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Are you working on another project relating to the Fukushima nuclear disaster right now?

From June 2011, my colleagues and I have been working on the 3/11 Kids Photo Journal, including youth from Fukushima. All of the Fukushima children involved have been affected by the nuclear reactor. They had to leave their hometown (some relocated yet in Fukushima but some outside Fukushima) after the disaster.  The project involves the kids taking pictures and keeping a journal about how things have changed and how they have carried on with their lives. Since the project started, we have already published a book and now we will issue three photo newspapers,­ one for each of the prefectures the children come from. Last year the Kids Journal received corporate funding but this year missed out so we applied for private company funding. It is becoming one of my projects I do for love.


YUMI GOTO  is an experienced independent art and documentary photography curator, editor, researcher and consultant who focuses on the development of cultural exchanges that transcend borders. She collaborates with local and international artists who live and work in areas affected by conflict, natural disasters, current social problems, human rights abuses and women’s issues. She often works with human rights advocates, international and local NGOs, humanitarian organisations and as well as international photo festivals and events throughout Asia. She is a founder of REMINDERS PROJECT and Tokyo Documentary Photography Workshop, and has launched REMINDERS PHOTO PROJECT GRANT FOR ASIAN PHOTOGRAPHERS “Visual Story Telling” with the Angkor Photo Festival. She is a curator of the weekly photography blog, REMINDERS: I WAS THERE and is editor in chief of pdfX12, photo documentary folio.

Goto is a board reviewer of Emphas.is (Crowdfund Visual Journalism), Prix Pictet Photography Prize nominator, 2012 MAGNUM Emergency Fund nominator, Photo City Sagamihara Asia Prize nominator and a jury member of the Asian Women photographers showcase for the Angkor Photo Festival, a jurist for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand annual photo contest 2010, and for the KL PHOTO AWARD 2011. She is a curator for the Photo Forum Beirut and a photo editor of the 100th memorial photographic book project, THIS DAY OF CHANGE by the Japanese publisher Kodansha which was nominated Lucie Award’s support Category. She is a recipient of Women’s Human Rights Activities Award, Yayori Journalist Award.

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