Radiation contamination has left large swathes of land off limits, likely forever. But from 2016, some residents have made their way back to areas declared safe by the government.
British photographer Giles Price, whose work often focuses on how human presence affects the environment, traveled to Namie and Iitate, two towns exposed to extreme levels of radioactivity following the disaster, to capture inhabitants returning home. The resulting photographs have been collected in the book “Restricted Residence.”
The 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm local time. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
Giles Price shot the images using a thermal camera. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
Before people came back, these were ghost towns, their appearance a far cry from what Price said is Japan’s usual spotlessness. “The Japanese people take real pride and care in tending to their environment. But as soon as you get into the exclusion zone, suddenly everything is ruined and the vegetation is very unkempt,” he said.
Until recently, the road that runs through the area, Japan National Route 114, was subject to traffic restrictions, with Price reporting “a rolling presence of police” during his trips to the region.
Out of the 27,000 residents who lived in these towns, only a fraction have returned. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
The images were shot with a thermal camera, making these otherwise everyday scenes appear surreal and otherworldly. Among other things, Price’s images show cleanup and reconstruction workers, doctors, office workers, a taxi driver who is on government subsidies because there aren’t enough customers, a mechanic and a farmer’s contaminated cattle, which he refuses to put down.
“Thermal imaging is used for industrial surveying, search and rescue operations and also in medical screening for illnesses,” explained Price. “Looking at the landscape I was interested in both the visible changes brought on by the tsunami and earthquake, and the notion of what you can’t see — the radiation and how the perception of this environment has changed.”
An images show the gradual return of life to the region. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
“The visual abstractness of the colors that this technology renders felt like a good fit. There’s nothing scientific about what I have used here, it’s purely about the interpretation of color — and color is an important part of how we experience the world.”
“There’s no detail, there’s no notion of truth in them as they are, they are meant to show people reacting to their environment,” says Price about the photos. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
A farmer’s cattle pictured grazing in the affected region. Credit: © Giles Price 2019 courtesy Loose Joints
People have returned to the area for a number of reasons, according to Price. “Some because the government was starting to cut the subsidies being paid to evacuees. Others, on the flip side of that, because of financial incentives to move into newly built homes, which attracted new residents who weren’t even from this part of Japan. But the majority of people who have moved back are elderly residents, who have less of a concern about their health.”