I sat down with Eric Kvatek for a brief Q&A on his amazing and touching story of Sendai and the recovery of the Japanese tsunami situation.
BA: What was your initial intention of going to the tsunami affected areas?
Eric: I already had planned to go to Japan when the earthquake and tsunami occurred. Most foreigners were leaving Tokyo but I decided to go ahead.
The airplane was almost empty and the immigration line was empty, even in Tokyo there were almost no gaijiin.
Because I was in Japan, I felt a strong need to go to the tsunami area and take photographs. If for no other reason, simply to document what I would find there.
At the same time, some tsunami survivors asked the volunteers to bring a photographer to document their difficult situation. Sothe timing was just right that the motorcycle guys could bring me along to Kesennuma, Miyagi.
BA: Who did you travel with?
Eric: I have a friend in Sendai, Jack Watanabe. He was able to introduce me to a group of motorcycle guys that had taken it upon themselves to provide support to the people in the most devastated areas. My main connection was Ken Hideshima. He works at a Harley Davidson shop in Kawagoe. Ken took really good care of me. Even while driving long distances and carrying hundreds of boxes Ken always made certain I was ok and getting good photos.
The leader of the Harley Bikers effort is Mr. Narita. He also made a kind effort to include me. (He is in a band, Hashball.)
BA: What was your reaction upon seeing the devastation, and people in emergency shelters?
Eric: The devastation is so vast and so complete that even being there in person it is difficult to comprehend. I have been there twice now and it is still difficult for me believe it. Many of the areas or so completely destroyed that you can not imagine it used to be a town full of houses. Now it just looks like an empty field. Everything is gone. In other areas, the only way to describe it is as tragic surrealism. Giant boats on roads, buses and cars on top of buildings, houses in the middle of rivers. These sights are so absurd, that the mind has a difficult time comprehending it.
For me, a very sad thing was to see the people’s personal possessions scattered all over. Clothing, a hairbrush, toys, photo-albums etc. All the small things that we live with everyday. Seeing these things scattered, mangled and muddy, it really made me feel that these people have lost everything.
Seeing the people in the shelter really made me respect Japanese people. The survivors were so calm. So stoic. Even some people would still smile for photos.
It was difficult for me to see some of the children. There were several in particular that were obviously damaged emotionally. I could see it in their faces, in their eyes.
BA: Why did you want to help?
Eric: To be completely honest, I did not go there to help. I went there as a photographer to take photographs. I exposed my lungs to some very bad air and maybe my body to radiation because it was important to me to take the photos.
The biker guys I was with helped immensely. They are the ones that really helped the survivors.
However, I could not constantly take photos. So when I was letting my cameras rest, then I pitched in and carried boxes or anything that seemed useful. Especially on the second trip.
BA: Don’t you think by taking pictures and documenting your experience you’re somehow helping? If not, giving a unique viewpoint on the situation?
Eric: Well, I hope it helps in the long run. To take photos and to show photos.
But definitely, the photos and videos of such destruction really inspired the people of the world to donate to Japan. Its one thing to hear or read that there was a tsunami, but I think when people saw the photos and videos, I think that is really what moved people to such world wide support.
BA: From your experiences the other people helping/volunteering, what were some of the most touching?
Eric: Just seeing these guys wake up at 4 in the morning, drive hundreds of miles over cracked and damaged roads, through the vicinity of the radiation, then unloading and organizing thousands of boxes of donations, not getting to sleep until maybe 1 AM and then waking up and doing the whole thing again was incredible. I know Ken was really exhausted, but he never stopped to rest, and he was smiling all the while. Sometimes I pushed him to drive me to another area and even though he was very tired he would drive me to take more photos. I am impressed that Ken had this amazing energy to work so hard. But a lot of people worked really hard.
BA: What was personally the most touching experience there?
Eric: So after being earthquaked, tsunamied, starved and radiated it was also unseasonably cold and snowing. The survivors endured hardship upon hardship.
There are so many tragedies but also so many examples of human kindness and the triumph of their will to survive.
I wish I could think of one amazing touching story, but honestly, it is all such a blur to me. From the moment I woke up until I went to bed I was almost constantly shooting. Even when we were driving sometimes I was shooting out the windows with two cameras at once. Just because I wanted to capture as much as possible.
I guess something heart breaking, was seeing small families searching through the debris that used to be their house. Or seeing families watch what is left of their home being torn down or bulldozed. The blur in my mind is full of stuff like that Iguess.
BA: Did you ever feel in danger at any time while shooting or working?
Eric: I am absolutely certain that the mix of chemicals, smoke and rotting things was a bad thing to be breathing. Even at the time and after my lungs hurt.But I refused to wear a mask. I saw refugee kids without masks so I figured if they don’t wear masks then I’m not wearing a mask.Maybe that is foolish, but I felt it was a matter of solidarity.
But thats such a vague danger. It’s the kind of danger where ten years from now I find out I have lung cancer and then I will wish I wore a mask I guess…
BA: After completing your journey and going home what has stuck in your mind?
Eric: I think just the reaction of Japanese people. Everybody seemed really grateful that I went there when very few foreigners would go there. Even just being in Tokyo at a time when all of the foreign business people fled and France sent airplanes to fly their citizens home. Many people thanked me just for being in Tokyo and drinking the water and eating the fish along with all the citizens that had no choice but to endure. Even the staff at my hotel kept thanking me and I felt ashamed because I wasn’t really doing anything but taking photos. Even some Japanese soldiers thanked me for being there. We were standing in the worst of the destruction and they wanted to talk, to know where I lived and what the American news says about the situation.
BA: What was the most difficult thing during your experience?
Eric: The stories people told me. All of them involve people searching for and finding their dead relatives. One man found his parents under a rug. Jack’s story of searching for his girlfriend immediately after the earthquake and seeing all of the fires and all of the dead people. Ken told me about how he moved dead people out of houses.
I watched some Japanese police try to extract a two week old corpse out of a mangled car. It was extremely difficult for them to get it out. I think it took them several hours to do it. I felt so much sympathy for those cops.
BA: What do you think helped people the most during these difficult times?
Eric: Of course the clean water and food was essential. The bikers gathered the donations from their friends and communities and even some American military guys donated supplies to the bikers. I think a combination of the actual supplies and the survivors knowing that people cared about them.
Now the volunteer effort is more focused on cleaning up the affected areas. Tons of mud has to be removed by hand. My last trip there I saw huge piles of debris that has been cleared. So hopefully now the people are taken care of and the long process of cleaning up will move along. But then there is the radiation problem…
BA: Do you have plans aspirations to go back and see the progress in the rebuilding/recovery efforts?
Thanks to Eric Kvatek for sitting down and answering my questions. Also, thanks to the people in the story that did so much and gave their time and effort to those in need.