In densely populated cities such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, construction work takes place everywhere. As new skyscrapers and apartment buildings spring up to replace old buildings or fill empty lots, the scenery of the city constantly changes before one’s eyes.
Living within an environment with so much change means it may be hard to recall one’s surroundings from mere months ago. In fact, it is thought that relentless transformations may be a contributing factor to an ever-thinning memory regarding one’s everyday environment. Perhaps this is why people who move to the city from less densely populated areas – the countryside, for example – often recall the views of their hometowns with a sense of homesickness, and wish the sceneries of their childhood memories to remain unchanged as time ticks on in the city.
The town of Namie, birthplace and home of Tokyo-based photographer Toshiya Watanabe (1966-), found itself within the exclusion zone declared due to radioactive contamination after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. His mother, who had still been living in Namie by herself, had to evacuate to Fukushima city. Watanabe was able to receive special permission to enter into the exclusion zone and used the rare chance to visit his old hometown together with his mother to clean up the house she had to abandon. In the short time that was left, Watanabe took photographs in the abandoned streets of his ghost town. These photographs, taken one-and-a-half years after the disaster had happened, were published in the photobook “18 Months” (2012). Watanabe continued visiting different regions within the exclusion zone and photographed them for a fixed-point observational series soon to be published in the book “Thereafter.”
Watanabe photographed places that are deeply entangled with his own childhood memories. They show locations of personal nostalgia – areas around his or childhood friends’ homes, the daily way to school, the school building, his favorite playground. Instead of photographing these places from afar to capture as wide a scene as possible, Watanabe photographed the series from distance that allows us to watch buildings, roads and vegetation change as time goes on. In the photographs taken one or two years after the disaster, time seems to have stopped, with no trace of human life to be seen. In some of the towns, the evacuation order has been lifted later on, and preparations are underway for people to return. But there are also other places which find themselves in a continuing state of disrepair, where the thriving vegetation has begun to overgrow buildings as if to swallow them whole.
Thanks to Watanabe’s use of fixed-point observation, it becomes clear that rather than human interventions like new buildings being erected or reparations being done, it is nature – in the form of trees and plants – that has the power to transform sceneries dramatically and without mercy, forbidding people from returning to places intimate and dear to them due to their state of deterioration. Watanabe’s will to keep continuing his series may have been fueled by the frustration of someone who has spent years growing up in an area slowly but surely seeing his memories disappear.
Living in an environment that unceasingly confronts us with change and new information, events that occurred a short while ago are soon pushed to the back of our minds, and even important memories fade away from us like ghosts from a distant past. Watanabe’s photographs are a way of questioning what it means to live in and within a certain space, and they constitute a resistance against an ever-accelerating force of forgetting.