March 29th, 2011

Adam Dean: On Covering Japan’s Devastation

Adam Dean, a Beijing-based photojournalist represented by Panos Pictures, arrived in Japan roughly 20 hours after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of the country.  After he returned  home to Beijing  on March 26, Dean (one of the 2011 PDN 30 emerging photographers) answered our questions about the logistical challenges of covering the catastrophe, and also wrote about the story’s emotional impact. We reprint his email to PDN below.

(Some of Dean’s images from Iwate and Myagi Prefectures can be seen on The New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog, and were printed in last week’s issue of the magazine.)

Dean writes:

“I was traveling and working with a British writer from The Daily Telegraph newspaper,  and between us we have covered earthquakes in China, Pakistan and Indonesia, cyclones in Burma and tsunamis in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as undercover reporting trips to North Korea and Burma but from a logistical point of view this has been one of the hardest assignments to cover.

“When we first arrived it was almost impossible to find a car available to hire and a fixer or translator who was prepared to travel north. In Japan, obviously a wealthy country, it is much harder to find an English speaker who has the financial motivation to come and work in a potentially dangerous environment with journalists compared to poorer countries …. Japan is also a deeply rules-based society so therefore the ‘work-arounds’ that journalists might normally use when covering a story like this are less effective here.

“When we first arrived in Tokyo about 20 hours after the tsunami, we were hearing reports of water shortages up north so we bought up as much food and water as we could find in stores in Tokyo where many of the shelves were already beginning to empty.  In the first 36 hours most of the flights and trains north from Tokyo were canceled, all the highways were closed to all but emergency vehicles and as a result the minor roads were clogged with traffic. The other real supply issue was fuel. Some of the oil refineries were damaged in the earthquake so there has been a shortage of fuel which has been compounded by residents fleeing from areas affected by the nuclear reactor leaks who have been constantly topping up on fuel fearing a meltdown. Over a week after the earthquake, there were queues of up to seven hours for fuel in some areas.

“Communications has also been a problem in the tsunami-affected areas where the network infrastructure has been badly damaged but generally it is not too bad. I hired local mobile phones and 3G data cards on arrival at the airport which allows us to be online in most areas and I have a satellite phone and a BGAN for transmitting images when conventional networks are down.

“Once on the ground,  the access has not been a problem. Soldiers, police and other officials have been very helpful in allowing us to work. The real problem has been a logistical and supply issue and access to the remote areas that were affected by the tsunami.

“The catastrophic tsunami was sadly eclipsed by the potential threat of a nuclear meltdown so I have been covering both angles of this story. Once we had sorted out the logistics after our arrival, we headed north to Sendai and stopped on the way in Fukushima at some of the evacuation centers for people living in the exclusion zone close to the failed nuclear reactors. Since then we have been working our way up the tsunami devastated northeast coast in the Myagi and Iwate provinces.

“Covering stories like this is always harrowing. You are photographing people on what is likely to be the worse day of their lives. Many whom I met had lost everything; family, home, savings etc and were now living in cold temporary evacuation centers with little to eat and no idea what or how they would recover their lives. Despite this, without exception all the people that I talked to and photographed in Japan were kind, gracious, generous and optimistic. There was very little complaining or even criticism of the government response.”

Photo © Adam Dean/Panos. Dean’s March 15 image of rescue workers piling bodies onto a truck in Rikuzen-Takaata, Japan, was recently published in The New Yorker.