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Images of Japanese disaster strike a chord in Minnesota

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Only the foundation of Hatakeyama's boyhood home was left.
All that was left of photographer Naoya Hatakeyama's boyhood home after the tsunami was the foundation. Eventually even that was removed.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

The giant wave that smashed into the Japanese cost in March 2011 — or 3/11, as the Japanese now call it — destroyed most of Rikuzentakata, the small community that was the hometown of photographer Naoya Hatakeyama.

His mother died in the tsunami. It took him two days to reach the town. The buildings of his boyhood were gone. Debris blocked roads, and he had to skirt the crippled Fukushima power plant.

When he got to Rikuzentakata he began taking photographs. "It's like a kind of healing, no?" he said.

Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama in the MIA galleries
Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama in the Minneapolis Institute of Art galleries on March 5, 2018.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Minneapolis Institute of Art is currently showing the photos. There are images of floods, piles of rubble, lines of trash stretching around the foundations of houses, all that was left of many buildings. The city once had tens of thousands of trees; only one remained, and eventually that one died too.

What may be striking to Minnesotans is while the pictures are clearly of Japan, they bear a remarkable resemblance to the floods experienced here in recent years, most notably in the Red River Valley.

"Disasters are everywhere, but disaster is local," Hatakeyama said.

The similarities with Minnesota go deeper than a shared history with disaster. Like many communities on the Iron Range, Hatakeyama's hometown is surrounded by quarries. As a boy he saw the controlled explosions as quarry workers extracted tons of limestone destined to be ground up for cement.

"Sometimes the scene was very violent, but the scene fascinates me," he said.

Blast, 2005, Chromogenic print by Naoya Hatakeyama.
Blast, 2005: In some of his early work, Hatakeyama used a camera equipped with a motor drive and a remote control to get spectacular images of explosions at the limestone quarries.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

That's where he be began taking photographs. He caught spectacular images of huge boulders flying through the air split-seconds after they were blown up. He moved to Tokyo to continue his career, but immediately ran into problems. 

"At the beginning I could not make any photographs in Tokyo because everything was so crowded," he said.

But then he recognized a constant in what he was seeing in the city — cement. He made the connection between the quarries of home and the mushrooming buildings of the city. He conjured a photographic metaphor: as he puts it, the quarries and Tokyo were the negative and the positive of the same photograph.

Feeling freed by this, he became an urban photographer. He began shooting images in the Tokyo neighborhood where he lived. It was still crowded and filled with contradictions, but now he could work.

"It looks beautiful, but at the same time it's awful," he said, standing by some of the images in the show. "I love that kind of contradiction in one image."

Hatakeyama delighted in the contradictions he found in Tokyo.
When Hatakeyama began focusing on urban photography, he delighted in the contradictions he found in Tokyo. Space was so limited that this ball field took on a temporary second life as the site for model homes a developer was trying to sell.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dozens of these pictures now hang on the walls at the Institute. The show is called "Excavating the Future City." It's the first major show of Hatakeyama's work in the United States. The photographs each stand alone, but curator Yasufumi Nakamori says they can also be seen as a life cycle.

"That has a resonance in our daily life, whether it is in Minnesota or Tokyo," he said.

Following the tsunami, the life cycle continued and Hatakeyama kept taking pictures. Now, seven years later, he reckons he's got 8,000 images of the aftermath and recovery.

When the tidal wave hit, he said, everything stopped. He couldn't see a future. But as time passed — a day, a week, a month — he could see back.

"And then gradually we can build our past. And then gradually we can find the perspective for our future," he said.

Correction (March 12, 2018): An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Naoya Hatakeyama's first name in most of the captions.