Representation of Trauma in Kazuma Obara’s Exposure

Introduction

In 1986, one of the most disastrous nuclear power plant accidents in history took place. As a result of this nuclear spillover, known as the Chernobyl disaster, millions of people were affected by harmful radiation and the effects of this catastrophe are still felt today. In 2015 and 2016, Kazuma Obara, a Japanese documentary photographer, travelled to Pripyat, which is a city situated five kilometers away from where the initial explosion happened. It was there that he found an expired film that had been exposed to radiation within the area. He decided to use this film in his photography series Exposure (2015-2016), which considerably influenced the overall outcome of the work. Exposure can be connected to the genre of late photography, defined as images taken after specific events have ended where only traces, fragments and empty buildings are left behind.[1] Furthermore, late photography generally depicts stillness and operates in contrast to “freeze frames,” which are often distributed in the media during or immediately after an event has occurred.[2] In alignment with the genre’s popularity, David Campany considers it to be a dangerous art form because its openness for interpretation may “foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern,” hence stimulating a purely “aestheticized response.”[3] Therefore, in this essay, I aim to answer the question: Does Obara’s photographic series Exposure (2015-2016) have a contemplative effect on the viewers that can contribute to a critical re-evaluation of their memories in connection to the Chernobyl disaster or does it merely instill an aestheticized response?  

The essay begins by discussing the academic literature on the genre of late photography in relation to Obara’s series and afterwards analyzes the effects of film on the viewer in connection with late photography. Lastly, it examines the series in the form of a photo-text book and interprets it as a counter-archive. By focusing on Obara’s landscape photographs and use of text, I hope to assess how the Chernobyl disaster can be interpreted as an ongoing event that needs to be urgently redressed in the near future.

[1] Campany, 2003, 90.

[2] Campany, 2003, 91.

[3] Campany, 2003, 96.

AFTERMATH/LATE PHOTOGRAPHY

Obara traveled to Pripyat twenty-nine years after the initial explosion at Chernobyl and took photographs near the now destroyed power plant. One part of Obara’s series comprises of desolate landscapes and urban photographs that only contain traces of the people that once lived there. This can be seen in a black and white Untitled photograph (Figure 1), which depicts a lake that is surrounded by nature. There is a boat on the right side of the photograph and a shape that vaguely resembles a silhouette in the middle. This image does not refer to any specific place and thus creates a sense of distance, emptiness and stillness. As the photograph portrays the aftermath of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, it can be associated with the representation of trauma that is captured by photography and the genre of late photography.

Figure 1 – Untitled, part of series Exposure (2015-2016), Kazuma Obara

Cathy Caruth, a literary scholar focusing on languages of trauma and testimony, defines trauma as a wound inflicted upon the mind and an “event that is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again” in the mind of the survivor.[1] This difficult experience can be further connected to the complexity of representing trauma in photography. An art historian, Donna West Brett argues that traumatic events have a direct effect on specific places which results in new ways of perceiving them.[2] More specifically, this new perception depends on how events and the affected historical places, memory and trauma are represented and leave a trace in empty photographs.[3] She states that alike images can be interpreted as “both constructing notions of place, and in turn, as being constructed by place.”[4] Brett connects this notion to empty landscape photographs which to her are highlighted by traumatic and astigmatic vision[5] which reveals “the tension between seeing and not seeing events and places of trauma” where aftermath photographs of particular sites of memory and trauma function as indicators of the initial event.[6] As a consequence, aftermath photographs refer “to what is not depicted in the picture frame” and hence, create a different relationship with history and memory.[7]

In his photographs, Obara also provides an “astigmatic” conceptualization of the event and challenges people’s process of memorialization. After the explosion happened, the area surrounding Chernobyl became devoid of life and activity, causing an aesthetic challenge how to represent the trauma caused by the event in a rather silent and deserted landscape.[8] In contrast to war, the case of Chernobyl lacks a perceived enemy which “reduces narrative conflict.”[9] When observing Figure 1, it is difficult to connect to the photograph because it lacks any presence of a narrative or symbols that viewers[10] may relate to their existing memories of Chernobyl. Through its depiction of a peaceful and mundane landscape, the photograph obfuscates one’s understanding of what is happening because people often stereotypically expect such photographs to be associated with a dynamic and post-apocalyptic narrative. Conversely, the indirect depiction of trauma in the image “place(s) us in reference to experiences that resist integration into memory, historical narratives, or other mitigating contexts.”[11] Furthermore, it can be said that the image is placeless and hence establishes “a link between the ‘experience of place’ and the enigmatic structure of traumatic memories.”[12] By situating the viewer in reference to an event, Obara not only confronts traditional representations of traumatic events in documentary tradition as immediate and easily accessible but also questions viewers’ positioning in relation to the Chernobyl disaster.

Due to the popular post-apocalyptic imagery circulated in the cinema and a popular gaming culture where monstrously mutated human and animal bodies predominate, the area affected by the disaster has become a tourist attraction that further perpetuates this imagery.[13] Therefore, it is important to analyze Obara’s images in relation to these existing representations of the event in order to understand his visual strategy. As David Campany argues, the perceived stillness in photographs (as in Figure 1) can only become apparent when contrasted with the moving image.[14] Therefore, the image can evoke a sense of melancholy and gives the impression that time is standing still, solely in conjunction with the influence of other media. However, through their withdrawn and impersonal aesthetics, late photographs often separate themselves from the dominant visual stream of images.[15] As such, they aim to stimulate a critical understanding of the event in contrast to the dominant narrative, making it possible to perceive the event in a new light.

This notion can be also applied to Obara’s series as viewers are generally not used to seeing images like Figure 1 of Chernobyl. This feeling of unfamiliarity and confusion can potentially encourage people to re-evaluate their memories or knowledge pertaining to the disaster. At the same time, as Campany warns, the late photograph’s excessive openness for interpretation – through its political withdrawal – can also prevent any critical reading and instead create a purely aestheticized response.[16] To investigate whether Obara’s photographs are merely aesthetic or whether they serve as a vehicle for critical re-evaluation of people’s memories of Chernobyl disaster, it is necessary to identify the photographic strategies that Obara adopts in his series.

FILM: EXPIRED & EXPOSED TO RADIATION

One of Obara’s visual strategies is his use of a medium-format film that had expired in 1991-1992, found in the area of Pripyat. The film had been left untouched and was exposed to substantive radiation throughout the years, resulting in the presence of unusual markings such as concentrated grain, blurriness, grayness and light leaks that had spread across his images. As demonstrated in Figure 1, the above-mentioned aspects indicate that Obara’s series is closely connected to the definitions of late or aftermath photography. However, it is also important to address aspects of Obara’s series which problematize this categorization. While Campany links the aesthetics of late photographs to forensic photography,[17] Obara’s photographs can no longer fit into this category because of his use of the expired film. The final results of the images trouble the photographs’ “straight” nature,[18] which contain abstract elements due to radiation. Even though Figure 1 and 2 portray the aftermath of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, the film obscures the images’ indexicality. Instead of merely showing absence in a desolate landscape, the viewer is also presented with the palpable presence of radiation, which haunts the series and connotes a sense of continuation, thus complicating the perception of the event as finished and hence its categorization as aftermath photography.

Figure 2 – Untitled, part of series Exposure (2015-2016), Kazuma Obara

An art historian, Daniel Bürkner, states that artists are mostly challenged in their representations of the traumatic event of Chernobyl because of the radiation’s invisibility.[19] He identifies two approaches that photographers generally adopt when photographing the area: the first is iconographic, based on a symbolic portrayal of landscape while the other is material, aiming to depict the invisible radiation through photochemical processes.[20] In Figure 2, Obara employs both as he depicts a landscape in combination with the generally recognized icon of Pripyat, the Ferris wheel, which is repetitively displayed in gaming culture and the cinema. At the same time, the effect of the film is apparent as the image suddenly and uncannily makes the radiation visible.[21] Since Bürkner’s text indicates that alternative representations of various traumatic events are needed, Obara’s strategic and innovative portrayal of the nuclear disaster can be seen as one such example of this. However, this realization complicates the monolithic category of late photography which groups distinctive types of traumatic events and their aftermath together.

In contrast to “straight” photography, Obara’s use of the film highlights a mythological aspect of both radiation and photography as a medium to visualize such phenomena.[22] As Bürkner suggests, a suitable way to depict nuclear contexts is by destructing the medium.[23] Through the use of expired and damaged film, Obara “exposes mystic phenomena in nature that transgress human senses.”[24] This strategy strongly connects with the difficulty of representing trauma in photographs because as viewers, people are forced to face something that they may never grasp, both in the form of visible or invisible radiation and the traumatic event itself.

In addition, Obara’s photochemical experiments emphasize a mystic interpretation of the power plant’s landscape due to his use of an elaborate and attractive aesthetic approach. However, this use of aesthetics simultaneously brings to light the event’s ongoingness and implies his attempts to stimulate a sense of urgency, indicating that people still face the effects of the explosion today. As such, the process of observing Obara’s images operates in contrast to people’s existing memories of Chernobyl as an event that has finished and is therefore no longer urgent. In this way, the aesthetics are not only beautiful but also political. The ambiguity of some of Obara’s images actively aims to trigger a response in the viewer, with the effect of the film being further highlighted by his use of text.

PHOTO-TEXT BOOK

As a final product, Exposure was turned into a photo-text book where the viewer can observe the interplay between text and image. In the series, the text is always presented separately from the photographs and consists of a personal story narrated by a woman named Maria. The story reveals that Maria was born five months after the initial explosion and has consequentially experienced serious health problems throughout her life. The viewer is left confused because the text and images operate in contrast to each other as the text is extremely personal while the photographs are rather anonymous and withdrawn. However, the series can be interpreted as a photo essay because the sequence of non-narrative images in combination with a narrative text evokes the viewer’s emotions. In this way, the images are not exclusively illustrative as their interplay with text makes them “coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.”[25] The art historian, William J.T. Mitchell, argues that the “agonistic” form of the photographic essay tends to be concerned with the nature of photography, writing and the relationship between the two, as with its represented subject matter.”[26] He concludes that the “mutual ‘resistance’ of photography and writing” can potentially result in an approach that is “both aesthetic and ethical.”[27]

When reading and browsing through Exposure, one is left with the startling realization that the real content of the images is a visual representation of the traumatic experiences caused by Chernobyl. Since it is difficult to simultaneously represent and express trauma, the photo-text book requires the persons perusing it to use their imagination to project the traumatic experiences of Maria into the landscape and re-evaluate their position as viewers in relation to the Chernobyl disaster. Without the text, it is difficult to access the images, as it provides context and transforms the basic act of seeing into a kind of ethical witnessing. Since the images are too ambiguous to stimulate an active response in the viewer, the text is needed to enable the viewer to sympathize with Maria’s story. As a result, I argue that Obara’s combination of photography and text in his photo-text book has achieved a double effect of ethics and aesthetics.

Furthermore, since Obara’s photo-text book is removed from the immediate circulation of images in the media, it can be related to an archive that is attempting “to sustain the ‘evental’ content of photography.”[28] A professor of art and aesthetics, John Roberts argues that “archives are structures of meaning in process” and “that the reclamation of photography from the archive always promises a practice of counter-production, of counter-archiving and of interruption and reordering of the event.”[29] He claims that a separate event added to an archive is never late due to its ability to retemporalise itself “through a continuous process of symbolic construction and reconstruction.”[30] For him, the photo-text book strongly contributes to this process of retemporalisation by making “‘event’ and counter-archive, or ‘event’ as counter-archive” coherent and in critical alignment with a digital form.[31] In connection to Exposure, Maria’s story is not circulating in the media and cannot be found in history books. Obara wants to expose Maria’s personal story to the public and shed light on the untold stories of people who were and still are affected by the nuclear spillover. Hence, as a photo-text book, Exposure enables the interruption and reconstruction of the dominant narrative concerning the Chernobyl disaster and can subsequently be interpreted as a counter-archive.

By combining text and images together, Obara avoids focusing exclusively on the images’ aesthetics and instead makes the viewer contemplate the scale of trauma inflicted upon the individuals affected by the nuclear spillover. This approach provides the viewer with emotional access to the photographs and thus negates Campany’s threat of indifference and political withdrawal in this case. In contrast, it triggers feelings of concern and emphasizes the importance of taking action to re-evaluate our views and understanding of the event as finished and unimportant.

CONCLUSION

The aim of this research has been to analyze Kazuma Obara’s photographic series Exposure and determine whether this series has had a contemplative effect on the viewer or whether it only stimulates an aestheticized response. In relation to this aim, the concepts of late/aftermath photography, representations of trauma in photography and the interplay between text and image have been discussed. The analysis has revealed that Exposure is related to the genre of late photography through its depiction of the aftermath of the explosion at Chernobyl and through Obara’s use of placeless, withdrawn and anonymous aesthetics.

Two main strategies have been identified which contribute to a perception of the series as not only aesthetic but also strongly contemplative. The first is Obara’s use of expired film exposed to radiation, which unmasked its presence in the area and brought to light the ongoing effects of the event. At the same time, the film’s effect obscured Exposure’s categorization as late photography due to its abstract elements. The second strategy is Exposure’s final form as a photo-text book, where narrative text is juxtaposed with non-narrative images. This contrast allows the viewer access to the images by projecting Maria’s traumatic experiences onto the photographs, resulting in the perception of the event as both aesthetic and ethical. At the same time, the photo-text book can be interpreted as a counter-archive which has the power to disrupt normative narratives disseminated about Chernobyl and hence allow the viewers to re-evaluate their memories in relation to the event. In sum, counter-archives like Exposure are essential to challenging the dominant perception of Pripyat and its surroundings as a post-apocalyptic playground, which ultimately trivializes the suffering of the survivors and all the people affected by the nuclear spillover.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Agee, James, and Walker Evans. 1941. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. London: Penguin.

Baer, Ulrich. 2005. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brett, Donna West. 2015. Photography and Place: Seeing and Not Seeing Germany after 1945. S.l.: Routledge.

Bürkner, Daniel. 2014. “The Chernobyl Landscape and the Aesthetics of Invisibility.” Photography and Culture 7.1: 21-39.

Campany, David. 2003. “Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of “Late Photography”.” In Where Is the Photograph?, edited by David Green, 88-97. Maidstone: Photoworks.

Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mitchell, William John Thomas. 1994. “The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies.” In Picture Theory, by William John Thomas Mitchell, 281-322. University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, John. 2009. “Photography after the Photograph: Event, Archive, and the Non-Symbolic.” Oxford Art Journal 32. 2: 281-98.

Zink, Andrea. 2012. Approaching the Void–Chernobyl’ in Text and Image. Anthropology of East Europe Review30.1: 100-112.

 

APPENDIX 1: List of Images

Figure 0 – Cover of a Photobook featuring the photographic series Exposure………………..0
Source: https://josefchladek.com/book/kazuma_obara_-_30
Figure 1 – Untitled, part of series Exposure (2015-2016), Kazuma Obara. 3

Source: http://kazumaobara.com/exposure-2015-2016/
Figure 2 – Untitled, part of series Exposure (2015-2016), Kazuma Obara. 6
Source: http://kazumaobara.com/exposure-2015-2016/

 

 

 

[1] Caruth, 1996, 3-4.

[2] Brett, 2015, 2.

[3] Brett, 2015, 2.

[4] Brett, 2015, 2.

[5] Brett defines astigmatism as a “defect of the eye or of a lens whereby rays of light from an external point converge unequally in different meridians, thus causing imperfect vision or images. In other words, rays of light are not focused at one point but instead diverge across a plane causing multiple focal points” where in photographs the focal point of the image “deviates across the photographic surface and beyond the picture frame” (Brett, 2015, 3).

[6] Brett, 2015, 2.

[7] Brett, 2015, 3.

[8] Zink, 2012, 101.

[9] Zink, 2012, 101.

[10] By viewers I consider both people who have been directly affected by Chernobyl and people who have indirect memories of the nuclear disaster by hearing and reading about the event.

[11] Baer, 2005, 68.

[12] Baer, 2005, 69.

[13] See for instance the movies The Chernobyl Diaries (2015) and Voices from Chernobyl (2016) or games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Call of Duty and Chernobyl Commando.

[14] Campany, 2003, 93.

[15] Campany, 2003, 94-95.

[16] Campany, 2003, 96.

[17] Campany, 2003, 90.

[18] Straight photographs are generally highlighted by sharpness, detail and no manipulation or technical distortion and hence, are understood as being closer to truth than, for instance, painting or abstract photographs (Kukulski, 2014). For examples of straight photography, see for instance Ansel Adams, Walker Evans or Rineke Dijkstra.

[19] Bürkner, 2015, 21.

[20] Bürkner, 2015, 21.

[21] In general, Obara mainly adopts the second approach and Figure 2 is the only photograph from the series where the place might be identified. Otherwise, the rest of the series is highlighted by placeless aesthetics as in Figure 1.

[22] Bürkner, 2015, 34-35.

[23] Bürkner, 2015, 35.

[24] Bürkner, 2015, 35.

[25] Agee and Evans, 1941, xv.

[26] Mitchell, 1994, 301-302.

[27] Mitchell, 1994, 322.

[28] Roberts, 2009, 295.

[29] Roberts, 2009, 295.

[30] Roberts, 2009, 295.

[31] Roberts, 2009, 296.

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