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To discover more about the living life behind a lens we started portrait series featuring 500px photographers. This week we interviewed Kasper Nybo, an independent humanitarian photographer who specializes in socially-focused editorial photography. His work raises awareness and funding to organizations dealing with human crises and social issues unfolding around the globe. We’d like to share with you the story of Kasper’s work in Japan covering the aftermath of earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
Where were you at the time of Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and how did you find out about it?
It was Friday morning, the 11th of March. Breaking news started to tick in on more and more news sites. I was in my office at 9AM local time and had BBC running on my laptop, watching live images coming in, they looked like something out of a movie.
What stuck in my memory was the contradiction between the violent images and the ticker in the bottom of the screen discreetly saying: "Three people reported dead in quake". Anybody watching this must have known that this was a massive and extremely deadly disaster happening in front of our eyes. In the following hours and days, that number in the ticker just kept rising and rising.
Tell us about your travel and what equipment did you take with you?
As soon as I saw the magnitude of the events I knew I was going, it was a matter of getting tickets and contacts together as fast as possible. After a week I had everything ready, but was then put on hold as the nuclear situation around Fukushima became very unclear. I needed to secure stabilized iodine, just in case things would develop to the worse while I would be on the ground. This was two very long weeks of waiting for technical details to be cleared. Three weeks after the quake and tsunami I arrived in Tokyo, made my way to Sendai and eventually in Ishinomaki which would be my base for the next two weeks.
Equipment is always kept to a minimum when I travel and document these kind of events. In the end you have to be ready to have your gear crushed, and still be able to carry on working with whatever you can find around you. Gear will help you, but what matters is your ability to connect with people around you, and not invade a very delicate, emotional and fragile situation. I was shooting a Canon 40D at the time, with a 16-35mm 2.8 lens. For some portraits I did for Red Cross I had a backup 50 mm 1.4. Every night I downloaded everything to my laptop and backed up all shots to an external drive that I kept on me at all times.
Tell us about “Lost Love” photo. Where did you find it? Was it staged? And could you trace who this couple is?
I never stage or arrange shots under these circumstances. This image was captured inside a large gym-hall at a school turned into an evacuation center. I had been to several that day and many were actually in a surprisingly good state, I think largely thanks to the mentality and organization of the Japanese people. But this one was sad, dirty, run down and had a really heavy feeling to it. On my way out Jason, my fixer, pointed me to this pile of items and explained the purpose of it. I honestly didn't hear a lot of what he said as this couple just stared at me from the dirty, broken frame. It was really strong and really beautiful at the same time, and more importantly it was so iconic of what the country was going through. I thinks it's a good reminder to us that no matter our circumstances, our income or our location, everything can be gone in a flash. This was of course only one tiny piece of rubble out of the estimated 23 million tons the tsunami left behind. In each piece could be found a similar story, and that - I believe - is the hook to understanding and communicating a disaster like this.
What is Miho’s story?
This photo is part of a story that was produced for the Red Cross... The twins Hiroki and Miho were inside their school. As gigantic earthquake has hit they were in separate classrooms. The earth was shaking so much nobody was able to move. Under his desk Hiroki was hanging on to the leg of the desk. Then it was over. All classes rushed into the school yard, and Hiroki called for his sister Miho. They kept close together as things calmed down, that is when the helicopter arrived. The engine was roaring through the wind, from a big megaphone sounded a message nobody expected: “Tsunami on its way, Tsunami on its way. Get away from the ground! Seek upwards!”. Afraid and confused everybody rushed back into the school. Suddenly there was something that came right towards them, it looked like a big black snake which rolled itself through the whole town. It was the tsunami. Facing the ocean Hiroki and Miho watched the water coming straight at them, rushing up the small street leading into the schoolyard where they stood minutes earlier. That day they had to sleep at the school. And the next day. Trapped on an island in the middle of the ocean.
When the water has started drawing back their big brother fought his way through manholes and rubble to find Hiroki and Miho. Shortly after their mum and dad reached the school, which during the following days transformed into an evacuation center. The next three weeks the family stayed at a few square meters among many other families. They had none of their own belongings and only the clothes that were distributed. But they were together, all of them. After a month Hiroki and Miho returned to their house for the first time. Just as at the school the whole ground floor was covered by the water and everything has been destroyed. Miho was happy to be back. This is when this shot was taken, as Miho was overlooking her neighborhood and the remains of the houses.
Tell us about “The way home” photo.
I had a couple of days alone at the end of my trip. My assignments were over, my fixer and the organizations I'd worked with were gone, and I spent two days walking the streets and the rubble non-stop. I had most of the background information I needed, through my fixer I'd spoken to so many people on the streets, but for the main feature story I was working on, I still felt that I needed different images to hang my words on. And so I started walking, and walking. I often find it more rewarding to produce material in this manner, because you are driven by other factors than just "go there, get this story" - you're opening your eyes and your mind to input you would otherwise never see. Again, with my very limited Japanese, the ability to make human connections count far above any gear.
Could you share with us your thoughts as you were leaving Japan?
Leaving a country where so much has happened is of course always a bag of mixed feelings. I didn't set out on my journey as a humanitarian photographer with some high idealistic goal to change the whole world and make it a perfect place through my photography, but of course you always aim to make a difference, to spark a change - or even to inspire. Japan is a nation that will recover, they are strong people, they have the economical conditions in their favor (they are the third largest economy in the world). Just in the two weeks I was there, the bullet trains were not operating when I arrived - when I left they were up and running again, tracks repaired. So things move forward with great speed, and most of us have probably seen the before/after pictures now, from the one year anniversary of the quake.
On the human and cultural side Japan is an awe striking place, their sense of collective unity is out of this world. You have to remember that geographically it's a fairly limited area that was impacted by the tsunami, but the warmth, support and active participating in clearing, rehousing and just caring for the ones afflicted - even just from what I saw on the streets - is something I believe we could all learn from. My work is focused on telling real and honest stories. Stories that go close to the people behind the live ticker in the bottom of our TV's. These stories - I find - are just so much more interesting and close cutting than any random Breaking News story that will flash by our eyes.
Visit Kasper Nybo’s website kaspernybo.org to see his full body of work, read fascinating stories behind all images and to get in touch. To follow Kasper’s travels and get updates on his photographic stories like his Facebook Page.
Thanks Kasper for being interviewed and to you for reading! Please leave a comment below, we value your feedback and Kasper would love to answer any questions you might have.