Photographing a nuclear evacuation zone
Athit Perawongmetha's self-portrait was taken inside the Fukushima evacuation zone in Japan.
April 14th, 2011
02:14 PM ET

Photographing a nuclear evacuation zone

A “time stop.” That’s what photographer Athit Perawongmetha found when he entered the Fukushima evacuation zone to document the ghost town left behind in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan. The traffic lights were still on and air conditioners were running, but there were no people. “The city is untouchable. Everything I see is like a dream,” he said.

Perawongmetha documented the scene with his camera, taking photos of the destruction from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's cooling systems, leaving operators with no way to keep the three operational reactors from overheating after they shut down.

He came back with photos of empty streets, abandoned houses left open, cats and dogs forsaken by their owners, and shoes left in a doorway, waiting for their owners’ return - but no people.

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On April 6, the first day of his journey into Fukushima, Perawongmetha did not see a single person.

Using only a mask as protection from the radiation, he and his travel companions used GPS to explore the area within the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) evacuation zone. On the second day inside the zone, April 7, they did not realize how close they were to the plant. When they looked at a map later that night, they realized they were five kilometers (three miles) from the nuclear plant.

The next day, Perawongmetha went with his friends to a radiation screening center to be tested. Their levels were within the acceptable range despite how close they came to the plant. After learning that his radiation levels were OK, Perawongmetha said he wanted to return.

On Monday, Perawongmetha went inside the evacuation zone for the third time. This time he was not taking any chances; he wore a full protective suit and mask.  He went within 1.5 kilometers (one mile) of the plant, closer than he had ever been.

Perawongmetha said he decided to go “to see something inside because all the press didn’t go inside before.”

He said the crisis has given him a great respect for the Japanese.

“I thought that the Japanese people kept very calm ... and (didn't) panic with the thing that happened,” he said. “They keep their feelings inside; they try to stay very quiet and wait for some help.”

Perawongmetha is from Bangkok, Thailand. He arrived in Japan on March 21. It was his first time in Japan and his first assignment covering an earthquake or tsunami.

“It is quite sad about these things happening in Japan,” Perawongmetha said. “This is a real big crisis for Japan. I hope that Japan will come back soon, like they came back after World War II."

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Japan • World