PHOTOGRAPHER Dean Chapman remembers preparing breakfast for his wife and children on Friday, March 11, 2011, when the first reports of an earthquake in Japan broke on the radio.
Forty five miles off Japan’s north east coast, a colossal earthquake had struck deep beneath the Pacific, resulting in a tsunami of unprecedented scale and ferocity.
Three months later Chapman took his camera and hitch-hiked around the worst-affected areas, the north east coast of Honshu and the Sanriku Coast, echoing a trip he had taken some 10 years earlier.
The compelling images he captured on this sombre pilgrimage are on display at Side in this new exhibition.
I remember that day as our 24-hour news channels showed the same footage on an endless loop.
An office building collapsed in on itself as white-collar workers cowered in doorways; hellish flames engulfed an oil refinery with no one to stop them; supermarket shelves threw their goods to the floor as terrified shoppers froze to the spot and that indomitable wave of brown sludge advanced, seemingly in slow motion, consuming everything in its path.
The imagery was recognisable from big-budget Hollywood disaster films but it was playing on the wrong channel; this was the news, this was real.
In the months following, Japan mourned the now estimated 15,878 lives lost and the international media focused on the impending meltdown of Fukushima nuclear power plant.
A tsunami does not wash away, it kills, smashes and shatters everything it touches and flings the remains to somewhere nearby.
Chapman shows us what a tsunami aftermath really looks like for those who have to live through it. Mountains of landfill are piled up in “debris processing plants”, fishermen catch flotsam in their nets and burn it, policemen clear drains blocked with anything and everything, and mangled cars are piled up on the shore like crushed Coke cans.
Chapman’s earlier images, depicting ordinary life before the disaster, are tinged with a cruel irony. They show young boys resting in the shade of the tsunami wall, a mother and child walking past a sign showing the height of the previous tsunami and a man staring peacefully out to sea. These same locations are now barren wasteland, punctuated only by towering piles of wreckage.
It was a difficult moment when I realised many of the people in the earlier images are likely to have died. I found false comfort in the hope that the children, at least, may have grown up and moved away to one of the big cities, escaping the disaster. A collection of found photographic prints completes the exhibition.
In an attempt to reunite people with their property and their memories, millions of prints were salvaged, washed and dried by volunteers during the clean-up process.
Of course, the images have all been damaged. In some cases only a small part of the image is left visible and most of them look violently charred in bubbling shades of red and orange – a particularly powerful metaphor for thousands of violently destroyed lives.
The exhibition is an emotional tribute and memorial to the tsunami victims, but it also offers hope for what is to come for the survivors.
Archaeology of a Disaster is on until March 16. For more information visit www.amber-online.com
Toni Marie Ford