May 23, 2013

In the spring of 1336, Francesco Petrarch ascended Mt. Ventoux, in southeastern France. As he reached the 6,200 ft. peak, he was stunned by the grandeur that lay below him. A scholar, Petrarch opened his book of St. Augustine and read how mankind is awed by natural wonders such as mountains, seas, waterfalls and the movement of the stars. However, the wonders themselves are “uninterested”. This caused Petrarch to reflect on the arrogance of human vanity and ponder his sudden admiration for the nobility of uncorrupted thought. Upon descent from Ventoux, Petrarch “hastily and extemporaneously” penned a letter to his collegiate counselor, Diogoni di Borgo San Sepolcro, in order to document his experience. Many historians mark this letter as critical to the onset of western humanism and the Renaissance.

This past Sunday, an article in The Japan Times (1) brought Petrarch to my mind. Photographer Tomoki Imai has been compiling a photo journal of the natural environment around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station since April 21, 2011. He has made 20 visits since then, ascending mountains located between 20 and 30 kilometers from the nuclear accident site. However, his most recent visitation was the first time a news reporter had accompanied him. Imai’s recent book “Semicircle Law” had generated minor news media interest because it showed a different view of the accident’s aftermath, unlike the apocalyptic visuals that have been common in the Press for more than 2 years. The wrecked reactor buildings are rarely seen in the pictorial. In the few pictures where the plant can be seen, it’s little more than a mote on a distant shoreline. Accompanied by the Times reporter, Imai stood on the observation deck of Mount Higakure, nearly 20 kilometers from F. Daiichi…the closest he had ever been to the plant. While there, the photographer reflected on his first experience, more than two years earlier.

In April 2011, Imai scaled to the top of Mount Tekura, some 2,000 feet high and 30 kilometers from the accident site. “I wanted to stand there and see the [Fukushima] No. 1 plant with my own eyes,” Imai explained. “When I first climbed up the mountain, I remember being really nervous and scared.But when the photos actually started coming out, I realized that the prints didn’t necessarily reflect all the trepidation I felt. So then I realized how my view of Fukushima was being distorted by all the TV images and the information we were being bombarded with at the time — when, in actuality, the view from the mountaintop was quite pretty to look at. I found that disconnect very interesting.”

Upon reading Imai’s words, an analogy to Petrarch’s realization atop Mount Ventoux dawned on me. What Imai saw had a profound effect on his work, convincing him to shift the focus of his plans for his Fukushima project. He had decided to visualy document the land surrounding Fukushima Daiichi instead of photographing the devastation caused along the Tohoku coast by the massive tsunami. Others were already doing that. Imai wanted to show changes he felt would occur with the Fukushima coastal area resulting from the nuclear accident. “First, there were many restrictions on where I could go, so the [local Fukushima] cities were kind of out of the equation to begin with,” he recalled. “But once I started taking photographs in the mountains, I realized that was another valid way to document the ongoing aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.” Imai initially expected that some visible effects of the radiation would eventually show in his pictures, but just the opposite has happened. He now wishes to show that any changes to landscape inside the exclusion zone are invisible. However, what Imai sees makes him wonder whether or not the contamination has tainted the cyclical nature of Mother Earth.

The journalistic schema of the Japan Times article is decidedly antinuclear. They post a few quotes from Imai that imply he remains convinced future visits by him will reveal radiation damage he can visually document. The Times article suggests Imai has not experienced a complete personal catharsis with respect to his feelings about the nuclear accident…his doubts remain. However, the sudden change in his vision upon gazing down from Mount Tekura more than two years ago, and his recent photo journal, could eventually have an influence on the Japanese people as significant as Petrarch’s impact on western civilization. Could Tomoki Imai’s scaling of Mount Tekura in 2011 stimulate a conceptual renaissance concerning Fukushima Daiichi?