A photographer traveled to tsunami-ravaged Japan. She asked the people she met about nuclear power.
Michelle Magdalena Maddox stepped off a train in the Japanese coastal town of Ishinomaki, and took a giant leap of faith.
The photographer carried only an umbrella and her camera bag, loaded with a Canon 5D digital camera, a medium-format Hasselblad, rolls of film, a light meter and a change of underwear. After a quick bowl of ramen at the train station, she set out to find locals to answer a single question a friend had helped her craft in Japanese and write on a card:
“How do you feel about nuclear energy?”
It’s a question Magdalena (as she prefers to be known professionally in her hometown of Pacific Grove) hadn’t given a lot of thought to before her trip to Japan. Known for her stark black-and-white portraits and lush nature-based nudes, Magdalena’s previous environmental subjects had focused more on individuality—how driving habits leave a carbon footprint, how takeout food packaging impacts the ocean.
Nature’s wrath became humanity’s disaster, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off Japan’s Pacific coast on March 11; the tremor was ranked one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. The tsunami it triggered sent wave after wave of unrelenting water surging over land, destroying everything in its path. Then, the nightmare got worse: After the earthquake knocked out the electrical lines supplying the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the tsunami waves flooded its backup generators and three nuclear reactors suffered full meltdowns, releasing cancerous plumes of radiation into the atmosphere and ocean—a Level 7 accident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, matched in severity only by 1986’s Chernobyl. Level 7, the highest rating, indicates a major release of radioactive materials, with widespread environmental and health impacts.
In April, Magdalena’s friend invited her to Tokyo to shoot a theatrical production. That Magdalena might take up the offer was never a question. That she might add to her journey and photograph the disaster zone from June 22 to July 4, scared some of her family and friends.
“I don’t know if you want to call it courageous or dumb,” Magdalena says. “Everyone here was very nervous for me. ‘We’re getting radiation over here; what the heck are you doing, thinking of going over there?’”
But when she sat down and watched videos of the disaster, she came to realize that beauty exists in even the most dire circumstances.
“I believe the better parts of humanity come out in times of crisis, when materialism falls through your fingers,” she says.
Magdalena decided to focus on Ishinomaki, about 80 miles from Fukushima, a coastal town that had been all but washed away by the tsunami’s waves. The sign she carried stated that she didn’t speak Japanese, but she wanted to gather people’s opinions of nuclear energy and take their portraits.
She depended, she says, on the kindness of strangers, and the strangers she found were very kind, indeed. One helped her carry her equipment off the plane in Tokyo. Another family helped her carry it to the train. A high-school football trainer in Miyagi took her to the government building to see if she could get hooked in to any volunteer groups closer to the disaster zone. And at a small prayer site overlooking the devastation, she met an English-speaking elementary-school principal who was visiting from several hours away. Most locals, she says, were staying in nearby hotels, returning sporadically to salvage their belongings and reconstruct their homes.
The principal took her to see Ishinomaki’s own destroyed elementary school. Then they headed for a nearby Buddhist temple, where the tsunami had washed over the adjacent cemetery, toppled gravestones and carried bodies away.
As they stood there in contemplation, streams of light broke through the clouds, and the principal said to her: “I don’t know how it is in your religion, but here we would say, ‘This is a time to pray.’”