The Life and Death of Towns, by Naoya Hatakeyama


Born in 1958 in the Iwate prefecture on the North-Eastern coast of Honshu, Naoya Hatakeyama has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the V&A in London and twice in Arles (in 2003 and 2009). A graduate of art and architecture, the artist is much-decorated in his homeland of Japan, with public institutions, important photography events and private collectors all vying for his images of nature, with their profound and singular reflections on world affairs.

In his 2012 series Terrils (French for ‘slag heaps’), Naoya Hatakeyama (whose wife is French) explored the coalfields of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The photographs tell the story of a skyline transformed by the waste left behind from the mines: of man-made hills and shale. Through retracing the impact of these shadows cast by the past on the landscape of today, Naoya Hatakeyama explores a paradoxical history, veering between flux (the mines of yesteryear are after all deserted) and stasis (the slag heaps endure and are even classified- protected and valued as memorials of an epoch).

It’s this capacity to create a link between ages and to concentrate these paradoxes in a single image that push the photographer to keep on going with his work. Amongst all his subjects however one, explored in two books, holds a particular resonance- perhaps because of its profound, personal significance. In March 2011 his hometown was decimated by the tsunami that initiated the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. The wave razed the small town of Rikuzentakata and carried away residents in their hundreds, including the mother of the photographer, whose body was missing for six, agonising days during which the photographer clung onto the hope that she had survived.

In his books Kesengawa and Rikuzentakata (2013 and 2016), Naoya Hatakeyama uses images to express that which is beyond words. In Kesengawa, he reflects upon those six days with photos of the ravaged, post-tsunami town juxtaposed with ones of the Rikuzentakata of his youth. In Rikuzentakata he chronicles the painful reconstruction and the town’s slow transformation through photos of daily life, taken over a five year span.

This quest to examine wounds through photography is one Naoya Hatakeyama continues to pursue. In his new monograph Excavating the Future City (2018), he investigates the decades of change seen within urban landscapes. He photographs buildings being demolished, the empty spaces they leave and, over time, the new buildings that rise up in their place.