Artist: James Whitlow Delano / New York USA

I found myself in Rome, Italy on 11 March 2011, when the black tsunami struck. The return flight I took the next day turned out to be one of the last commercial flights from Italy into Japan.

I had already begun to lay down plans on how to get to Tohoku before leaving Rome. The flight landed at 2pm in Narita. By 3am, I was heading north in a mini-van with trusted friends along the far, Sea of Japan coast of Honshu because of rumors about an imminent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.

There would be an explosion at Fukushima Daiichi that rainy day which pushed a massive amount of nuclear fall out to the ground, preventing it from being carried away by the wind, resulting in the need for the nuclear no-entry zone. We were unaware of the severity of the situation on the other side of the island as we focused on getting over to Iwate Prefecture safely. The car was loaded with jerry cans of extra fuel, drinking water and food, all of which, we had been told would be in short supply.

By morning the rain had turned to snow. In the center of the island, gasoline was being rationed and lines of cars stretched for kilometers. Residents were so desperate for fuel that, after waiting all day long, they would park their cars in lines for the night and return to them in the morning. It was decided to hire a taxi which used liquid propane gas because that fuel was plentiful.

Supply lines in Japan were breaking down. Runs on food and water left store shelves empty and that meant little or no bottled water for sale at a time when radioactive iodine from the unfolding nuclear crisis was being detected in water supplies.

The snow intensified in the tsunami zone. I wanted to climb right out of the taxi window, so intense was the desire to record the unthinkable. Cars were folded like soft drink cans over bridge railings 15 meters above the water, trees were impaled through 3rd floor windows and boats were even deposited on rooftops.

Survivors shuffled through the mud and snow in a state of shock. Soon we joined these shuffling masses, feet soaked with freezing cold black mud carried in by the tsunami. Moving inside provided little relief because inside evacuation centers temperatures hovered below 10 degree C, which leaned heaviest on the very young and the very old. The survivors gathered in family groups on blankets striving to regain a modicum of privacy in a twilight pall of anemic lighting underpowered by gas-powered generators (again fuel was in such short supply). No words were necessary for communication. It was there I first encountered a peculiar infinity-stare, born of worry, cold, hunger and lack of sleep. It would become a familiar expression in the time ahead.

Soon, though, the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi began to eclipse the tsunami disaster further north. Last week a nuclear expert expressed concern that the tsunami and explosion-weakened structures could collapse in one of the seemingly ceaseless aftershocks here, tipping out radiation on a scale that would dwarf Chernoble, over a year after the multiple meltdowns. It took the Soviets just eight months to construct a concrete sarcophagus completely sealing that reactor. The reactors at Fukushima remain exposed to the open air. And so this crisis has not ended by any means.


On 11 March 2012, the one-year anniversary, a family stood dressed in black on an empty plot in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where their home had been swept away. One of them was holding a little Buddhist monument dedicated to a lost family member. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to do this”, as I approached to ask to make a portrait, but I knew I had to do it.

Our eyes met and smiles broke out. They offered me a couple of digital cameras so that I could take their photographs. They asked me to stand among them and be photographed. We parted laughing. We all laughed together that day, exactly one year after the tsunami had changed our lives forever

Artist: Jean-Francois Pirson / Brussels Belgium

Space opens up as emptiness in contrast to the earth. On this earth, beings an objects together give shape to spaces. How, in this emptiness, on this earth, should we make our way, inhabit or produce a few material traces, between the movement of beings and objects, between the world and oneself?

An artist and teacher, honorary professor at the Higher Institute of Architecture in Liege, Jean-François Pirson expressives his relationship with space through an array of artistic and educational practices : photography, drawing, installations, texts, walks and workshops.

In the last few years, Jean-François Pirson combines his travels and his walks with his exploratory practices of space and uses photography as a medium to put in perspective parts of the world. Some installations : WE ARE HERE, International Photo Festival, Aleppo, Syria, 2006 ; NOUS SOMMES ICI, La Lettre volée, Brussels, 2007 ; 6th International Biennal of Photography, Territoires, Liege, with a travelling Installation, WASTELAND, 2008 ; DESSINE-MOI UN VOYAGE, The Centro de Artes Visuais, Coimbra, Portugal, 2010 ; SI UN JARDIN PEUT-ÊTRE, Summer of Photography, Brussels, 2010 ; IN THE INFINITE SPACE OF OUR HUMANITY, 11th International Photo Festival, Aleppo, Syria, 2012.


“The silence that faces up to things is something I detect in several of Jean-François Pirson’s photographs, in a switch to imagery founded on the physical search for a point of view, the right place to stand, or the place from which to deploy the eye in order to embrace the scope : all the contained space. Photography is essentially immobile, but when infused by walking, it takes on a view of space that is constructed as perception in movement. There is no subject, no centre, but intervals, lines, densities and voids, tenuous forms of continuity, and bodies, beings and their fragile dance, often minuscule, being there at that instant, traces of occupation – or not. How do the things of the world hold together?”


Sonja Dicquemare, The concrete Passerby, in FENETRE SUR N°1, Jean-François Pirson, Pédagogies de l’espace – Workshops, Cellule architecture, Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Brussels, 2011, p. 175.