Our Heroes: James Whitlow Delano, Photographer, Environmentalist, World Traveler

James Whitlow Delano seems to lead one of those lives you read about in National Geographic, traveling to exotic places and getting lost in the jungle with only his camera for company. Thankfully, he always finds his way out and shares his photos with the world. This is especially fortunate because he photographs the impacts of destructive forces on people and land -- like the devastation of Malaysian rainforests to grow palm trees for biofuels -- that might not otherwise be seen.

One of Delano’s most recent photo projects was of Fukushima, Japan’s No-Entry Zone: the 12-mile radius surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was hit by a tsunami following an earthquake on March 11, 2011. The tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems and onsite diesel generators, a situation that spiraled into the world’s worst atomic crisis in 25 years.

Delano entered the zone just days after the plant closed down. His descriptions of life in Japan (and the area immediately surrounding Fukushima) since the earthquake are insightful and scary, especially for those of us who live in close proximity to nuclear reactors in the United States.

Delano, who lives in Tokyo and spends the majority of his time photographing numerous Asian countries, says he feels a particular need to photograph people and environments that are impacted by forces beyond their control -- the underdogs. According to Delano,”These are all interesting places to me because…they all tie into this thread of culture and migration and how cultures lead into one another.” He is interested in “issues affecting normal, average people who are under the thumb of very powerful people who sometimes, or often, don’t care what happens to people who happen to occupy land next to their factory, or who occupy the forests they are cutting down.”

We spoke recently -- Delano in Tokyo and me in New York City, after negotiating a 14-hour time difference and the technical difficulties of dropped cell phone calls across continents and oceans. Below is an excerpt of our discussion. Listen to the 49-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above left) or downloading the podcast, or read a PDF transcript.

Check out Black Tsunami, Japan 2011, a new book about the Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster, with photography by James Whitlow Delano. Available in mid-March on the iPad.

You live in Tokyo and I know you weren’t there at the time of the earthquake, but your family was there, can you talk about what the first few days were like for you?

Yes, well I was in Rome, ironically, and I was getting ready to come home. My wife was here, and I called. I was in a hotel for one night that had no television, nothing, near the train station in Rome, which was all I could get. I called my wife up in the morning and said basically I'm coming home tomorrow, how is it going? Light talk. And she asked me if I had heard what happened. And I almost couldn’t believe that I was out of the loop that way, but I had no communication, so I had to go down to an internet cafe and see what was going on. I flew out that morning, as I recall, and it was one of the last flights that got in because the Italians stopped flights, like many of the countries of Europe, once the nuclear reactor started exploding.

The radiation levels have come down, but you still can’t live there and now they are trying to figure out where they are going to put all these contaminated trees, all of the leaves, all of the soil and the communities that are evacuated inside the zone, the governments of those communities are resisting having any part of their village designated as the place where they are going to put the contaminated soil so they can get back to life.

So my wife was here, and Tokyo is 200 kilometers, or more, 250 kilometers (170-80 miles) away from the epicenter, and yet, still it basically shut the city down. And when you have a metropolis of like 30 million people that depends on rail systems, it was mayhem…

So I got back at about 2 in the afternoon. I think it was on the 12th —I'd have to go back and look. But by 3 AM, the following morning I was in a car with two Japanese friends, a Korean friend and an American friend. We went from Tokyo--we didn’t go directly up, and thank goodness we didn’t, because that particular day we went up another of the reactors exploded. And we went over to the other side of the island, from the Pacific side to the Sea of Japan side, and there is a mountain range that runs down the center. My reasoning was that the roads would have been blocked and they were, and I was worried about the nuke exploding, and it did.

So we went up and followed that coast and came back over to Iwate Prefecture north of Fukushima. Because what I had seen in Italy, that was the most severe damage up there. Also, Iwate means stone hand and it literally looks like a stone hand with fingers pointed out and those bays acted as funnels to kind of turbo charge the tsunami and it rose to over 100 feet in many places and it was just shocking.

Did you wear a radiation suite, and a dosimeter or anything?

Frankly, I did not. I wore a mask so I wouldn’t breathe it in. The level was 6 microsieverts an hour -- you don’t want to live there, but it’s not kind of Chernobyl-time. And again, I was comfortable enough that--if I go into this area for five or six hours -- I was comfortable that the risk I was taking was a reasonable one, and I'm still satisfied with that decision.

I do have friends who went similarly clad several times into very heavily radiated areas. And you can’t see it, you can’t feel it. And my reasoning was: It’s in the zone. People don’t live there. That’s the story. Going to the most dangerous areas is not the story. The story is: people can’t go here, it’s irradiated and it looks visually the same, the consequences are the same, lives are disrupted, they can’t go back.

But it’s an interesting time now, because they are trying to decontaminate areas and re-designate areas based upon the actual -- as opposed to an arbitrary area -- actual radiation levels and people are going in, they are wearing hazmat suits in heavily irradiated areas, with simply masks and goggles and working day in and day out raking leaves, picking them up like you do in autumn and putting them in heavier plastic bags and those people’s health is going to be a big problem. And the other people who will be like when I went into the zone in April.

There are still people living in an extension to the northwest outside of the 20 kilometer zone called Iitate-mura. And actually in the mountains where this village area is, really caught more radiation than a lot of places right next to the plant. And it was very high. Now I already talked about.6 microsieverts. The day I went in it was 100 up there. And there were children and families still living there for another month because the government was not proactive enough to break away from a regiment and say, “Hey, we've got to get these people out of there.” So now that’s a part of the no-go zone as well.

And the radiation levels have come down, but you still can’t live there and now they are trying to figure out where they are going to put all these contaminated trees, all of the leaves, all of the soil and the communities that are evacuated inside the zone, the governments of those communities are refusing or resisting having any part of their village designated as the place where they are going to put the contaminated soil so they can get back to life.

I know in some of your pictures you dealt with some livestock that were left because they couldn’t be taken. What’s happened with all of the pets and livestock?

Where are they? Many have died. Some animal rescue groups do get in. There are a few people who do get in. I would love to get in with them, but I'm not Japanese. What some photographers or journalists have done is borrowed ID cards, but I don’t think I would fit that role very well. So unfortunately I can’t do that. But some of them are getting in, although not always.

Sadly, many of these animals have died. And then kind of in the theme of what we were talking about with the depositing of contaminated soil, in the cities of either Okuma or Tomioka, there are cattle that are now kind of feral. I don’t know how they are going to survive the winter. But the farmers, the ranchers -- I guess you could say farmers, because they don’t really graze, they raise them almost like veal in barns and bring them hay -- but they wanted to go in and corral all of these cattle they left to go wild, and even though it’s in the zone, the farmers said they believed that the animals didn’t want to die that way. Don’t ask me to explain that, but I don’t understand it either. But my question was, if they didn’t want to kill the animals, if they corralled them together would that mean that the animals go back into the food chain?

I photographed an enclosure in both of those series. It was right where the actual area is. I entered into the zone on two occasions, once September and once in April. And the farmer -- and I feel for these people, because most are seniors and they are good people and they've worked all of their lives and they are probably financially, before the disaster, they were probably financially on the edge, and this was going to push them over -- but he had cattle in this stable, barn, it looked more like a horse stable, right at the line. And when I went back in September, all of the other cattle were gone, but one. But legally speaking, that one head of cattle could have been brought to market and sold on the market.

They were testing for radiation but I have a feeling that they weren’t testing every single animal. So legally, that animal could go on the market. And that’s the world that the Japanese are living in these days.