The tsunami, the scale, the devastation
Words below by Katie Klingsporn
Published: Tuesday, May 22, 2012
When the Tohoku tsunami plowed into the Pacific coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, Drew Ludwig saw what everyone saw: A stream of chaotic camera-phone images, aerial news footage and grainy video of destruction so terrible it was hard to wrap the brain around. Fleets of cars carried away by gray water, buildings suddenly out at sea, out of context, entire towns crumbling against the force of the wave.
Ludwig was riveted by the facts. That the shift of tectonic plates that caused the tsunami also moved an entire country 8 feet to the east, threw the earth off its axis and created one of the five biggest earthquakes in recorded history. That the tsunami reached heights of 130 feet, that it stormed several miles inland up some valleys, that whole communities — and countless lives — vanished under its massive force.
And long after the tsunami fell out of the international spotlight, Ludwig, a photographer, was still obsessing about it. “I found my thoughts drifting back to the sheer size of the wave,” he said. “I kept thinking more and more about the size of it and wanting to be able to feel it in my own landscape.” Ludwig couldn’t shake a notion to capture the immensity of the wave, the scale of its devastation and the human side of its story with photos.
And so in October, Ludwig flew to Japan with a heavy backpack full of gear and a loose plan. Accompanied by a translator and guide, Ludwig walked roughly 200 miles across a tsunami-scoured region, camping in abandoned buildings, witnessing remnant after remnant of the catastrophe and seeking out people’s stories. He walked past crumpled bridges, foundations of homes that had been washed bare and toppled buildings. And slowly, he met people who shared their experiences.
He returned with a collection of arresting portraits that communicate the scale and surreal destruction of the tsunami in ways that words can’t.
An elderly man stands in the ruins of his former home for the first time since the wave killed his wife and son, a storm-stained curtain flapping behind him. A 12-foot clock tower bent by the force of wave stands in its warped position, its face frozen at 3:26, the time that the tsunami hit. A schoolgirl perches atop a giant boulder that was pushed a mile inland, coming to rest near the front steps of a school where 200 people died. A man standing on the foundation of what was his home demonstrates the height of the wave with an umbrella affixed to a 20-foot bamboo pole, which balances precariously above him.
In many of the pictures, the subjects demonstrate how big the wave was. A man throws a rock in the air to approximate the height, another tries to show it by raising a fishing pole high above his head and a woman hoists a bamboo pole painted with a 30-foot red line, the level the water reached over her house.
Ludwig’s exhibit, “Tsunami,” will show in two parts this weekend during Mountainfilm, which gave him a Commitment Grant last summer to help him with the project. “Chapter 1: Loomings” will be on display at the Telluride Conference Center, and can be viewed starting on Friday morning during the Moving Mountains Symposium. “Chapter 2: 8 Months Later,” will be on display at a surprise location during the Gallery Walk on Friday night. Ludwig is working with a street artist on the second installation.
Because part of Ludwig’s aim is to communicate scale, the images of “Loomings” will be printed to scale. Huge, that is. Viewers will be standing eye to eye to the people telling their story. While “Loomings” is about the scale of the disaster, Ludwig said the second show “is more about the subtlety between natural disaster and recovery.”
All together, “Tsunami” touches on people’s new, fraught relationship with the ocean, the spikes of hope that accompany recovery, the profound loss experienced by a nation and the incredible vulnerability of people. “It’s just about the enormity of the wave juxtaposed to the vulnerable small scale of the human,” Ludwig said. “It was all about trying to find … the visual between those two components.” Ludwig added he attempted to combine two worlds that are usually kept separate, conceptual photography and photojournalism, by not hiding behind objectivity.
Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke said giving a Commitment Grant to Ludwig was an easy decision. “I so respected his vision and think it’s so original,” he said. “There was really a thoughtfulness to it. It’s just spot on the way he went about this.”Ultimately, Ludwig hopes to take the show to Tokyo. Any proceeds from the sales of the work will go toward that effort.