Life after nuclear disaster

The Exposure series (top), by Kazuma Obara (above), depicting the life of someone affected by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, won him first prize in the People Stories category.
The Exposure series, by Kazuma Obara (above), depicting the life of someone affected by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, won him first prize in the People Stories category.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KAZUMA OBARA

Kazuma Obara, 32, had known since he was a teenager that he wanted to be a professional photographer.

He was 16 when the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in the United States happened and 18 when the Iraq War started in 2003. Photographs from the events were imprinted in his memory. He saw the power of still images to create awareness about the world's complexity.

"I studied sociology to better understand the world," said the Japanese freelance photographer.

After finishing his degree at Utsunomiya University in Japan, he studied photojournalism at Days Japan School of Photojournalism while working in the financial industry.

His career as a photographer started in 2011 with a series of tragic events. In January that year, he told his boss of his plans to resign in March. He had planned to go to Africa to pursue photography.


The Exposure series (above), by Kazuma Obara, depicting the life of someone affected by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, won him first prize in the People Stories category. PHOTO: KAZUMA OBARA

On March 11, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and killed more than 15,000 people. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded to have hit the country also caused nuclear accidents, primarily the meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

Obara, whose hometown is in Iwate Prefecture, began documenting the disaster area, photographing from inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the first photojournalist to do so.

In March 2015, an exhibition of his work on Fukushima, held in Kiev, Ukraine, led to him meeting Mariya, the woman featured in Exposure - a series of pictures he shot on old Ukrainian film depicting the life of someone affected by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The abstract series of haunting black-and-white images won him first prize in the People Stories category of the World Press Photo 2016 contest.

The submission was part of his documentary photography project while he was studying at London College of Communication for a master's degree in photojournalism and documentary photography.

Born five months after the disaster, Mariya grew up suffering from chronic thyroiditis, a result of radiation poisoning.

In April 2015, Obara's assistant discovered 20 rolls of unused colour film in Pripyat, with a 1992 expiry date. Obara set about shooting images taken in places related to the Chernobyl accident: the apartment of somebody displaced by the accident, a hospital treating people with radiation illnesses, an apartment where nuclear workers were living at the time of the accident, a school for children whose parents used to live in the restricted zone around Chernobyl, and current pictures of the plant.

When it came to processing the negatives, he had to improvise and experiment. The chemicals he needed for developing the old Ukrainian colour film were no longer available, but he found that using chemicals for black-and-white on overexposed film gave a result that suited his purposes. He wanted to capture the current situation and also help people imagine the invisible problems, such as those experienced by Mariya.

During his research, he realised that Chernobyl has turned into a tourist attraction, with people taking selfies and stereotypical images of a nuclear disaster zone.

"I saw that, for younger generations especially, the Chernobyl accident is now a part of entertainment and if I represent similar images, it doesn't work as journalism."

He captured it traditionally, but felt it did not work and decided to adopt a narrative and less fictional story. He points out that Mariya's story and disease are invisible.

"Visually, you cannot tell she's struggling. With text and abstract images, maybe people can have some imagination and space to understand invisible injuries."

His passion for issues related to nuclear plants, weapons, testing and victims stems from his close relationship with Fukushima. "I have many good friends working at the Fukushima nuclear plants, friends who have helped me a lot and I really want to learn what will happen to them in 20 to 30 years."

He is working on a story on nuclear labour issues along the south border of Fukushima and a project on the effects of the 1954 nuclear testing by the US government in the area of the Bikini Islands. He also has a project about World War II in Asia and places that Japan invaded.

Obara, who is based in Osaka, is married to a high school teacher and they have two sons.

Neo Xiaobin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2017, with the headline 'Life after nuclear disaster'. Print Edition | Subscribe