The difficulties of photographing Japan

It’s been more than one month since the 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, and the nuclear implications only seem to grow more harrowing by the day. Photographs documenting the disaster abound, and among the most striking are those by AP photographer David Guttenfelder, who lives in Japan with his family. He was away on an assignment when the earthquake hit but rushed back on the next flight he could get, not only to be with his family but to photograph the wreckage awaiting him at home.

“It’s a privilege to cover a place where you’re not living; to show up form the outside and work without fear that your family’s going to be affected…My career has been almost 20 years of doing hard news and natural disasters. This is the first time I covered a story in a country where I lived. I’ve lived in Africa and India and I was always working in conflicts in the Middle East. I would run off and leave my family safely at home. This time, my first question was, “Where is my family?”

After Guttenfelder caught a flight back to Japan, he checked in with his family in Tokyo and rushed off with a fellow AP-er to Sendai. “I saw a massive ocean vessel sitting in the middle of town,” Guttenfelder recollected to Kerri MacDonald at The New York Times. “That didn’t add up. ‘Is that a port?’ No, it’s a 7-Eleven parking lot and a cargo ship. I couldn’t get my head around it.”

Covering the after-effects of the devastation presented it’s own challenges, not just in gaining access to the nuclear exclusion zone, but in getting close enough to the victims to convey their emotional journey. “I think Japanese people feel it’s immodest to presume that someone would care about their story. There’s a really strong collective pressure to not bother other people or cause panic for other people.” As a result, the photo-essay he shot in those days is less up-front-and-personal and more of a wide shot, if you will, of the disaster at large.