Takashi Arai

takashi arai

Daguerreotype nuclear photography

“We tend to believe in the continuous progress of history and to feel that we are at the pinnacle of mankind’s historic achievements. This is not true because we cannot digest all the information and we all live in a limited time.”


When and why have you begun to work and to use a daguerreotype as a medium?

The first time I tried the daguerreotype process was in 2004 when I was at the college, studying photography. Since then, I decided to practice, but my main focus was not a daguerreotype process itself: I wanted to work with color innovators and black and white films. Everything changed radically when I experienced the earthquake in 2011; before that, I became more interested in nuclear issues because I found the survivor of the Daigo Fukuryūmaru (Lucky Dragon 5) fishing boat. I was emotionally touched by the language he used because before that, I thought about the victim suffering the situation and being very weak, needed help. The survivor had a very articulate voice, and I felt kind of warm heart from the way he spoke. Thanks to Ōishi MatashichiI became interested in nuclear issues.

When I experienced the earthquake, I started questioning myself about taking photographs in the devastated sites; I tried to get there and to shoot with a digital camera, but it was not possible because I felt like I was totally useless. I don’t know how to explain, but I felt my digital camera can’t capture anything facing that gigantic and traumatic sight. 

Instead of shooting photographs, I visited Kamaishi to donate the dark tent that I used for daguerreotype for mothers who needed private space to breastfeed their babies. After that, gradually, I started carrying daguerreotype equipment to portray people and landscapes, one by one. Only with daguerreotype, I could work in devastated areas in Tohoku. 

Here and There - Tomorrow's Islands (2011-)

using daguerreotype

Could you explain why the use of daguerreotype was interesting working on Fukushima, for example,  with your series Here and There – Tomorrow’s Islands (2011-)?

Soon I became more interested in Fukushima because everything was confusing, uncertain, and invisible.  I didn’t like the image given by TV or magazines, because if you go there you see so many controversial situations, and people look strangely normal. But documentary-style photography is always focused on destroyed houses, evacuated people, and exclusion zones. I was not particularly interested in them because the situation was much more complicated. I wanted to focus on how landscapes, lives of people, animals, and plants have been altered.

To depict those subjects, conventional photography doesn’t work for me.

People feel private in front of the daguerreotype. You need to move around a silver plate to see the image because of its mirror-like reflection. I consider this real experience to observe images connect you emotionally to subjects. That is why I think daguerreotype is one of the most useful tools to work with Fukushima.

Here and There - Tomorrow's Islands (2011-)
The pictures you take using daguerreotype seem to be intemporal. The series Lights, Water, Conglomerate (2010-) give the impression the picture could have been shot a century ago.

For this series, I wanted to focus on the daguerreotype’s materiality. The sense of time on a photographic medium is crucial. If you look at 100-years-old daguerreotypes, you can see the passage of time.


With this medium you don’t entirely decide the result of the final prints.

You can’t fully control the result on a daguerreotype. Daguerreotype is an irreproducible process, but I take it as an advantage. Photographers tend to create alternative reality through printing or retouching processes, and by time, they even start believing those manipulated realities. To me, realities are always uncertain, and photographs that are considered to capture realities must keep uncertainty on their images. For this reason, daguerreotype is more trustworthy for me.

remembering nuclear history

When dramatic events as Fukushima occur the questions towards the purpose of photography arose: what remains when everything has changed?

Disasters happened nine years ago, and since then, so many things have changed. The coastal area was once destroyed, and debris everywhere. But now, you see a series of new constructions: many of them are facilities for decontamination work at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The landscapes evolve themselves so fast, but documentaries are always focusing on something emergence and “meaningful.” However, if you have a surgery operation, there is a long recovery process – which can take years – after the initial treatment. I think photography works as a slow process to observe and recover from traumatic experiences. Daguerreotype is a slow process, but this slowness connects well to the healing process in Fukushima.

In the Serie 49 pumpkins (2014), you wonder about the capacity of a human being to remember an event he or she didn’t experience himself.

The problem with modern-day communication is that you tend to think you can know everything in the world. You believe you can imagine things from a distance, such as refugees from Syria or Fukushima, because you have the information. But on an individual scale, nobody can actually understand what is happening until you get there and experience the same situation. Everybody knows about the damage caused by an A-bomb, but people who actually experienced that died instantly, and no one can actually tell what it was.

My fundamental question is: how can we understand things that we didn’t experience

The flim 49 pumpkins is based on my personal desire. I needed to “re-experience” the bombing and understand how my grandfather felt on battlefields. He was a lieutenant served for the Japanese Imperial Navy during the Pacific War. Because I can’t use actual bombs, of course, I replaced them with real pumpkins. Flying in a B-25 brought vivid emotional and physical sensations to me. In that light-weighted aircraft, I felt loneliness, loneliness held by soldiers flew in the dark night. It was an unexpected feeling because I expected to have anger or sadness; rather than sympathy with soldiers. 

How can younger generations realize the reality of the bombing?

I think narratives by the persons who experienced actual events, we call them as Tōjisha, have the best strength because they don’t merely talk about the fact, but also talk about their emotions and physical sensations. Through those narratives, listeners can recreate so many feelings on their bodies and mind. But when all tōjisyas dead, how could we really understand, or “re-experience,” what happened in our history?

I think this is an impossible question, but it’s one of the fundamental missions that art must work with.

The series Exposed in a hundred suns (2012-) wishes to distinguish between the symbolic aspect of a monument and the reason which it exists.

There are two kinds of monuments: primary and secondary monuments, as I name them. The difference between them is that primary monuments are created by actual events. For example, the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima was a direct result of the heat and blast of the A-bomb. On the other hand, secondary monuments are constructed after events. For example, the cenotaph in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome was built in 1949, by famous architect Kenzo Tange, under the supervision of GHQ.

The surface of a primary monument contains many physical marks. If you touch the Atomic Bomb Dome’s rough surface, you can feel the mass of the building, and this experience brings you vivid emotions and sensations. We live in an information-oriented society. If you know the fact of the massacre happened at a historical place, etc., you can’t evaluate a monument without that context. My intention is to access primary monuments without political contexts or ethical values first.

According to you, is it possible to link catastrophic accidents as Fukushima and bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and damages suffered by people from radiations?

To me, they are clearly connected. Uranium-type nuclear power plants were initially designed to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.

The dogma of military tactics and large-scale industry are close, too. Like the U.S. A-bombed Hiroshima, justifying it as a way to minimize overall victims both in the U.S. and Japan, Japan started the nuclear industry for the greater good. But what about farmers, fishermen lost their lands and sea to harvest, and people dislocated from contaminated areas?

tomorrow's memory begins today

With the series Tomorrow’s History (2016-)you are wondering what the future will be through young people’s minds. 

This series questions what history and collective memory are. We tend to believe in continuous progress in history and feel like we’re standing on the top of humankind’s historical achievements. It’s not true because we cannot digest all information, and we all live in a limited timespan. In the 19th century, people wanted to be photographed because they knew that they will be forgotten in history very soon if they were anonymous. But nowadays nobody cares about it because we don’t believe that we will be forgotten in the longer timespan.


This vision of photography is linked with the idea that it can keep the soul and memory of things and people.

Even someone dies biologically, she/he never dies socially while someone remembers him/her. Photography is used to strengthen this kind of extended life, and it’s essential to realize that photography was desired and invented with this objective. Today we take too many photos; we post it and forget it.


This way photography becomes something that only testifies of the present issues without being linked with past or future.

I don’t mean to criticize digital communication like Instagram, but users don’t think images on SNS as extended memory archives. Users just enjoy, share, and consume photographic images.

Tomorrow's History (2016-)

Pictures:  Takashi Arai

You can find Takashi Arai on his website.

Interview recorded in september 2019.

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