Black Tsunami: Japan 2011

A photo book “Black Tsunami” by James Whitlow Delano documenting the devastation of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, published by FotoEvidence

  • ?Launched:?Apr 15, 2013
  • ?Funding ends:?May 15, 2013
“We started north from Tokyo at three in the morning, in a rented mini-van loaded with jerry cans of extra fuel, drinking water and food, all of which would be in short supply. We crossed to the Sea of Japan coast of Honshu because of rumors about an imminent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
There would be an explosion at Fukushima Daiichi later that day which would deposit a massive amount of nuclear fallout on the ground, creating a nuclear no-man’s land, but we were unaware of the severity of the situation on the other side of the island, as we were focused on getting over to Iwate Prefecture safely.? By the next morning rain had turned to snow. In the center of the island gasoline was being rationed and lines of cars stretched for kilometers.? Supply lines in Japan for everything, including food and bottled water, were already breaking down.? In fact, we had to abandon the mini-van and hire a taxi that used propane for the lack of gasoline.? The snow intensified in the tsunami zone. I wanted to climb right out of the taxi window, so intense was the desire to record the unthinkable.? Still, we had little notion that life in Japan would never be the same again.?
James Whitlow Delano,?an American photojournalist who has lived in Japan for 20 years, captured conditions immediately following the Tohoku tsunami and has been back several times to record the eerie emptiness of the contaminated no-entry zone and the conditions facing displaced people.
FotoEvidence?is partnering with James to produce a hard copy book of his work, ?Black Tsunami: Japan 2011,? a beautiful but haunting portrait of the devastation left by the great tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and caused the nuclear meltdown that has permanently displaced tens of thousands. James? images of farms and villages in the exclusion zone show an uninhabited landscape where ancestral graves lie in neglect, where pets and livestock have been left to perish, and massive mountains of contaminated debris have become permanent features of the landscape. He takes us to the shelters where displaced families huddle around heaters for warmth and struggle with understanding their uncertain future.

An ocean going ship sits where it came to rest in the debris of the great 25m high (82 ft.) tsunami that hit Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture following the massive earthquake that struck under the sea off of Japan.
An ocean going ship sits where it came to rest in the debris of the great 25m high (82 ft.) tsunami that hit Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture following the massive earthquake that struck under the sea off of Japan.
This formidable tsunami wall was not enough to halt the black wave that hit this village after the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, Toni, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The tsunami was 25m (82 ft.) high, though residents here claim that it was 30
This formidable tsunami wall was not enough to halt the black wave that hit this village after the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, Toni, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The tsunami was 25m (82 ft.) high, though residents here claim that it was 30
Cherry blossoms have open on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.
Cherry blossoms have open on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.
Once a great pine forest of 70,000 trees, covered the oceanfront at Takata Matsubara until the 11 March 2011 tsunami swept through decimating them all. Now the sea under cuts the roots beneath their stumps, giving them an other worldly appearance. Rikuzen
Once a great pine forest of 70,000 trees, covered the oceanfront at Takata Matsubara until the 11 March 2011 tsunami swept through decimating them all. Now the sea under cuts the roots beneath their stumps, giving them an other worldly appearance. Rikuzen

The Book
?Black Tsunami: Japan 2011? will be an important book because the Tohoku tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have had a profound effect on the Japanese psyche. James’ work reveals a deep appreciation for the beauty of Japan and profound compassion for those whose lives have been devastated by both the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown it provoked. The book is designed by Mark Weinberg, whose recent work for FotoEvidence was recognized as one of the best books for 2011 by Photo Eye.The hard cover, black and white book will be printed using a four color process at?Ofset Yapimev?in Istanbul.
The iPad version of “Black Tsunami: Japan 2011” (FotoEvidence) took the bronze medal in the digital book category at PX3 in 2012.
Afterword by Bill Emmott
The afterword in the book is written by?Bill Emmott, former editor of of?The Economist, the world’s leading weekly on international current affairs, now an independent writer and consultant on international affairs, who writes regular columns for?The Times?in Britain and?La Stampa?in Italy.
From the afterword
“An outsider?s memory is of little importance compared with the memories of the people of Tohoku, and of the rest of Japan, for they will not forget March 11th for centuries, if ever. But it is nevertheless important to share those Japanese memories, in however small a way, to maintain a sense of solidarity, of understanding, and above all of our human vulnerability in the face of nature?s force.”
From James Delano dedication
“This book is dedicated to the people whose lives were lost, or continue to be disrupted because of the Black Tsunami.?This natural event created a cleavage in Japanese history and in my life here in Japan. It has truly been a ?Year Zero?. To stand on solid ground and look up to third floor windows or higher impaled by trees, has forever cemented my sense of humility and awe for the forces of nature. A lot of people, young and old, weak and strong, needlessly lost their lives that day. I think about them, especially when walking through the cities where they once lived along one of the most beautiful coastlines on the planet.”
Links to the Black Tsunami project

Lost & Found: 3.11 Photographs from Fukushima

Exhibition at Hiroshi Watanabe Studio in Los Angeles (c) Lost & Found Project

This month of March brought the passing of the one-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami which hit the coast of Japan in 2011, laying waste much of the region, in some cases washing away entire villages and causing upwards of 20,000 deaths. Since the disaster, relief efforts came in a variety of forms, but one which humanizes the numerical abstraction of the death toll stuck out in particular.
In the current?Aperture?magazine issue?206, photography critic and independent curator?Mariko Takeuchi?writes:

In the cities, towns, and village affected by the disaster, a vast number of personal photographs were salvaged, pulled from underneath rubble and mud by all sorts of people. They were discolored by saltwater and covered with dirt; some were misshapen or even emitted foul odors. With very few exceptions, it was impossible to identify the people who had made the photographs, their subjects, or their owners?if indeed they were still alive.

What began as a small community effort has turned into the?Memory Salvage Project, a volunteer organization that has to date recovered and begun restoring 750,000 lost family photographs.

  • Slide2

?Restoration is not just a matter of infrastructure,? Professor Kuniomi Shibata, head of the Memory Salvage Project, says in a?video?for Discovery Channel, ?There are other important things.?
Snapshots were cleaned, numbered and digitized one by one with the help of volunteers who came from all over Japan. At least?20,000 photographs, and?13,000 photo albums have been returned to their owners. Several thousand other images abstracted by natural disaster have been assembled into an evocative and visually stunning traveling exhibition which has been on view in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and is now coming to New York.
Photographer?Munemasa?Takahashi, one of the leaders of the project?tells?New Yorker?sPhotobooth why the images on view are so powerful:

After the disaster occurred, the first thing the people who lost their loved ones and houses came to look for was their photographs? Only humans take moments to look back at their pasts, and I believe photographs play a big part in that. This exhibit makes us think of what we have lost, and what we still have to remember about our past.

Lost & Found: 3.11 Photographs from Fukushima?will be on view at Aperture?Monday, April 2, 2012 ? Friday, April 27, 2012.
Aperture Gallery and Bookstore
547 W. 27th Street, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10001
(212) 505-5555

4th January 2005: People returning to their destroyed homes near the wreckage of the train near Tsunami victims near Hikkaduwa, try to salvage precious items. Photo albums were the most commonly collected items. Family members look at a wedding album. Sri Lanka Tsunami. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Pukur (Pare) Churi

Their fear of items being stolen, or not being returned, was considered preposterous. When the Honorable Adviser and his excellency the Charge d’Affaires had themselves, guaranteed the safety of Bangladesh’s most prized artefacts, surely the protesters could have no reason to oppose this arrangement. News of the missing crate, and the priceless statues it contained, had been suppressed, but the information leaked out. Could the guarantors please explain?
Mr. Jean Romnicianu, Charges d’Affaires, Ambassade de France ? Dacca, met with Bangladeshi journalists at the French Embassy in the first week of December 2007. In response to questions about the possibility of goods being damaged, stolen, or not being returned, he stated emphatically, “What I am saying is that for at least 30 years, it has never, not once, happened within the framework of an international exhibition. This is an international exhibition with a signed agreement between governments, there is no scope whatsoever of that kind of thing.” “We will take care of the artefacts, until they are returned to the museum. All the insurance and everything is what is called nail to nail,” elaborating that it implied protection from the moment the artefacts left their original position in the museum, to the time it was returned to their original position.
Today we hear him on television saying “The responsibility of the French Goverment begins from the point where the items are in French cargo.”
“We are not going to put the artefacts at risk by unpacking them,” was also something the Charge d’Affaires had said that day. Today (Dec 24th 2007), the BBC quoted that the remaining crates had all been checked at the airport. So airport officials who have no knowledge of archaeology are permitted to open the crates, while neither members of the expert committee nor the people who are legally required to inspect the artefacts, are allowed to do so. These officials had also signed documents stating they had verified the contents of the crates, which they had obviously not been allowed to do, even though it made the documents presented, technically false.
“The Museee Guimet and our authorities in France have worked rather hard, I must say, even though it resulted in one mistake, in keeping all the controversies outside of the French papers, of the European papers,” the Charge d’Affaires had also said that day. So the cover up was taking place at both the Bangladeshi and the French end. Presumably it continues.
(Audio recordings of these statements are available and will be uploaded as soon as they have been digitised)
air-france-0978.jpg The plane that was meant to have taken the artefacts to Paris. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
searching-in-the-fields.jpg From Pukur Churi (stealing a pond) to Pukur Pare Churi (stealing by a pond). Search party looking for stolen artefacts by the pond at Zia International Airport. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
empty-crate.jpg The empty crate. We had been told these were special crates that could not be opened, as they were very special. A 300 year old French company had been especially commissioned to pack the crates. The government and the French embassy decided to show improper documents rather than risk opening these special crates for proper inspection and documentation. Looks like a pretty ordinary crate to me. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
media-on-alert-0905.jpg This was a story the state owned BTV had chosen to completely ignore. The rest of the media however, despite government efforts continued to report this important story. Despite the widespread protests and the media attention, the shipment was to go ahead. Both the Cultural Adviser and the French Charge d’Affaires, emphatically promised there was no question of items going missing or not being returned. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
b035.mp3 Interview of police officer after discovery of crate (Bangla). Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
arrested-security-officer.jpg One of the arrested security officers. What of the big fish that masterminded this theft? Or the people who authorised this shipment despite the proven irregularities? ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
press-conference-0605.jpg Press conference at Chitrak Gallery, where the incident has been called the most major cultural disaster of the century. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
It was the letter from Shanika, the girl I had found during the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, that reminded me of how we had forgotten all the other things that were going on. It was now Boxing Day. The Day the Tsunami had struck. Bodies are still being discovered after the Sidr cyclone. Demand for the trial of war criminals has moved off the headlines. Bodies of workers remain buried in the Rangs building rubble. It reminds me of how classed our struggles are. While we had united in protest when our archaeological heritage was being threatened, no such protest had taken place in solidarity with the workers.
wedding-car-outside-museum-0629.jpg It was Christmas day, and it is the wedding season in Bangladesh. People had gathered outside the musuem, as word had spread that the remaining artefacts were being returned. It was a very different mood, and the local flower shop was using the wide road to decorate a wedding car. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
media-outside-museum-watching-return-of-artefacts-1329.jpg Media professionals outside museum gate watching the return of remaining 12 crates. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
homebound-returning-artefacts-to-museum-0644.jpg Homebound heading home. The crates are now back in the museum. The demand for reinstating them in their original location continues. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
nisar-at-atn-0640.jpg It was the vigilance of Nisar Hossain (teacher at the college of fine arts, affectionately dubbed, ‘Sector Commander’ by fellow campaigners) and his friends that led to many of the irregularities being unearthed. Nisar being interviewed on the ATN channel. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
munni-interviewing-nisar-0639.jpg The media played an important role in keeping the issue in the public eye. Munni Saha interviewing Nisar Hossain for a programme in the ATN channel. The discussions included a clear condemnation of the French Charge d’Affaires’ statement blaming the protestors for the theft. The programme will air at 11:00 am Dhaka time on the 26th December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
shanikas-letter-0645.jpg Letter from Shanika, received earlier in the month.
shanika-and-shahidul-0198.jpg During an assignment for Help The Aged in Sri Lanka last month, I had sneaked a visit to Totagumuwa, in Hikkaduwa to see Shanika. The Tsunami had taken away her mother and her three sisters (including her twin sister). Photo: ? Priantha (Shanika’s dad).
27th December 2007
Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo Magazine in France, just sent me this press release last night. It was issued yesterday (the 26th December 2007) by the French Ministry of Culture. While it talks about the theft of the two statues, from Zia International Airport, there is no mention of the 10 crates that are already in Paris at the Guimet Museum.
Press Release by French Ministry of Culture (26th Dec 2007)

Boxing Day Blues

When Jolly’s son Asif asked me to take a portrait of him and his new bride Rifat, I took it on with grandfatherly pride. The photo session was booked for Sunday morning, the 26th December 2004. Boxing day.


The envelope from Sri Lanka also arrived on Boxing Day. 2006. Priantha and his daughter Shanika had sent me Christmas greetings. I felt bad that I had not sent them one.

I used to love the winding path up to the hilltop house in Chittagong. Zaman Bhai was the chief engineer of the Chittagong Port Trust. One of the few Bangalis in high positions in 1971. It is thirty five years since the Pakistanis took him away, but even many years after liberation, my cousin Tuni Bu would still look for him. Anyone going to Pakistan would be given the task of trying to find out if there was any knowledge of where he might have been taken, what might have happened. One knows of course what must have happened, and I am sure Tuni Bu knows too, but that never stopped her from trying to find out. She was much older than me, and it was my nephews Bulbul and Tutul and my niece Jolly, that I was close to. Atiq was too young in those days to qualify for our friendship. The house had a fountain and the surrounding pool was our swimming pool. It was the only home I had ever known that had a pool. Technically I was of granddaddy status to Jolly’s son, and the young man reminded me of my own happy childhood.

While I played around with the studio lights, Asif told me of the Richter 9 earthquake that had hit Bangladesh. Of course I didn’t believe him. Richter 9 is big and there simply couldn’t have been an earthquake of such magnitude without anyone registering it. But I did turn on the news immediately after the portrait session, and the enormity of the disaster slowly sank in. I rang Rahnuma and asked her to turn on the television, and went back to work. By then however, the news of the carnage in places thousands of miles away started coming across the airwaves.

The next day the numbers steadily rose from the hundreds to thousands and we were glued to the set. Though we hadn’t said it out aloud to each other, both Rahnuma and I knew I had to go. BRAC had organized a training for women journalists in their centre in Rajendrapur on the 28th. I had committed myself to the training some time ago and couldn’t really bail out in the last minute. On the way I heard from Arri that my friend in Colombo Chulie de Silva was missing. I kept losing the signal on my Grameen mobile phone on my way to and from Rajendrapur, but near Dhaka I managed to get text messages through. Chuli was safe, but her brother had died.

Babu Bhai managed to get me a flight the next day via Bangkok. I had posted an angry message in ShahidulNews in response to the tourist centric reporting in mainstream media and many friends responded. Margot Klingsporn from Focus in Hamburg wired me some money. Not waiting for the money to arrive, I gathered the foreign currency I could lay my hands on, packed a digital camera and a video camera along with my trusted Nikon F5 and left. That was when I made friends with Shanika.

It was Chulie who helped trace her. She had heard my story and wrote to me that she had found a “Shanika Cafe” near Hikkaduwa. We had gone out together in search of the girl. When we did find Shanika and her dad Priantha, she rushed to my arms.

Shanika with Shahidul. Photo: Chulie De Silva

Through Chulie’s translations Priantha told me that Shanika had been withdrawn and wouldn’t relate to people. It was our friendship that had brought out the little girl.


More than the wreckage and the rotting flesh,


I remember the mother in the refugee camp stealing a kiss from her new born child.


I remember the family sitting in the wreckage of their home in Hikkaduwa, going through the family album.


I remember the devotees returning to the Shrine of Our Lady of Matara Church to pray.
As a photojournalist we are touched by, and touch many people’s lives. Sometimes – not often – we are able to make a difference. But invariably we move on. On to another disaster, another success, another story in the making. The Shanikas of our stories, become yet more stepping stones in our career path, and the Christmas cards flow only in one direction.

Shahidul Alam

28th December 2006

The Land Became The Sea

Subscribe to ShahidulNews


As we watch in horror at the scale of the event, several things come to mind. How events a thousand miles away can affect our lives in so many ways. How connected we are in our joys and our sorrow. I realise that Bangladesh was not as badly affected as our neighbours, and that we should take pride in our achievements, but Bangladeshi newspapers today gloated over the victory of the Bangladeshi cricket team over India in their headlines! While I fret over the fact that the media plays on the negative, to downplay a disaster of such proportions in favour of a cricket match said a lot about our sense of proportions. In 1991, when nearly a million people had gathered to demand the trial of a war criminal, the government had chosen to ignore the news and mentioned instead the man of the match in a cricket game in Shunamganj. I had hoped a free media would play a more responsible role.

As I watch BBC and CNN interview British and German tourists, and the director of Oxfam from her office in Oxford, I remember my experiences in the 1991 cyclone where one hundred and twenty thousand people died in Bangladesh. As I stumbled through the debris, trying to get a sense of what had happened on the night of the 29th April 2001, I kept asking “What happened that night?” The aid workers told me of the number of bags of wheat they had distributed. The government officials quoted the figure in dollars that would be needed for reconstruction, the engineers spoke of the force of the wind.

A young woman in Sandweep looked at me and said “The land became a sea, and the sea became a wave”.

I try to imagine the tsunamis hitting the coasts of India, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and remember her words. The thousands whose lives have been wrecked by the earthquake do not constitute the ‘experts’ that the media consider worth asking.

Shahidul Alam
27th December 2004