Mathias Heng was born in Singapore and moved to Australia in the 1990s. He holds a master’s degree in photography and spends much of his time on assignments and conducting photo workshops. Much of his work is emotionally charged, a visual documentary narrative of conflicts and their effects on the civilian population, capturing key moments and turning points of human history. In spite of his exposure to many atrocities, Mathias has never lost his passion and commitment to humanity, or his ability to capture images that speak to people around the globe. In documenting the aftermath of the horrific 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting Fukushima nuclear disaster, Mathias Heng has created a timeless monument to the indomitable courage and selflessness of the Japanese people.
Q: Can you provide our readers some basic background information on your book “Finding Hope”?
A: “Finding Hope” is about the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami and resulting Fukushima radiation crisis. The images were taken from 2011 to 2013. They capture the resilient spirit of the Japanese people who rose above the ordinary to display their indomitable courage and selflessness. The focus is on their moments of hardship, difficulties, recovery, rebuilding and most of all in their happier times in the rebuilding of their lives. My inspiration came from the resilient spirit of the Japanese people and my mission was to record them with dignity and create a book that will be the testimony of their hope and love.
The book not only pays tribute to the people of Japan, it is also an opportunity for the people of the world to reach out to one another. It is important for the images to speak for themselves, for the viewer to experience that one solitary moment: a gesture of solidarity with the victims and survivors. This is a story that’s universal – images that reach beyond boundaries and inspire us with hope, love and a shared human experience.
Q: What camera equipment did you use to shoot the images in this project?
A: A Leica M9 and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens.
Q: What made this equipment especially suitable for this particular project? In other words, why did you choose it? Also, while many photojournalists favor the 35 mm focal length, why do you? Do you ever use wider or longer lenses on your M9?
A: M-System cameras are small, robust, easy to handle and don’t slow you down. And of course the end result in terms of the quality of the images is optimum for such a small camera and lens. Working in disaster areas requires lots of climbing and walking, and in most places there is no access by vehicle due to damaged roads. An M camera comes in handy due to its compactness. That also helps a lot in terms of weight; you’re not weighed down with a lot of heavy equipment. Shooting with the rangefinder I am able to shoot at slower shutter speeds, and the camera’s very basic operation and clear viewfinder that lets me see beyond the frame lines to anticipate what’s coming into the frame are big advantages.
The 35 mm format is ideal since it can be used to frame a portrait, environmental portrait, or landscape. And most important, the 35 mm perspective is close to what a human eye sees. I do use a 24 mm, 50 mm or 90 mm on occasion when I am either constrained for space or my subject is too far away and I can’t get physically closer.
Q: Your website says you’ve spent most of your time documenting war, disaster, poverty, social issues and humanity. What draws you to shooting these types of situations?
A: By documenting the subjects listed above I am, in effect, a witness, and others are thereby able to witness these events through my images. By means of this visual dialog I hope to achieve a better world.
Q: In creating the images for “Finding Hope” you must certainly have been aware that this was a cataclysmic event of a different order than wars and other disasters you have covered. Did you create what could be called “blanket coverage” responding to what you saw and then edit the images afterwards so they would tell a cohesive and compelling story, or did you have some specific concept in mind beforehand.
A: I have covered several earthquakes and tsunamis but the tsunami in Japan was different, not only in terms of covering the tsunami itself, but also in covering the resulting nuclear problems. The only way of finding out the risk of radiation is by using a Geiger counter, and that made the working conditions and getting access to affected areas very challenging. I went there with an open mind, without any preconceived plan and captured images of what I witnessed and focused on my subjects as the most effective and powerful way of reaching out to the viewer.
Q: You note that your images bear witness to the indomitable courage, resilient spirit, and selflessness of the Japanese people. Bearing witness and raising awareness are, of course, key elements in the noble tradition of photojournalism. Can you say something about what bearing witness means to you personally, and how it ties in with your goals for this particular ongoing project? It is also clear from your images that authenticity and truth are very much a part of the equation, so do you believe it is possible to achieve these things from the perspective of an empathetic outsider?
A: Bearing witness personally is a way of speaking for my subjects and communicating their truth to a wider audience of viewers. I hope this ongoing project gives an insightful picture, better understanding and awareness, educates, touches emotions, and inspires fund raising, longing for hope, and peace.
Q: Achieving a better world, portraying people with dignity, and capturing key moments and turning points in history are some of your goals as a photographer and a human being. Can you give us some idea of the mindset that is required if one hopes to achieve such lofty goals, and how do you know when you have come close to attaining them?
A: In portraying people with respect and dignity I do not manipulate or alter the images. The key element is capturing the moment in the way it was seen at that point in time. Only then can one achieve an authentic and compelling image the viewer can truly relate to.
Q: This image is a compelling statement that seems to imply a kind of steadfastness in the face of chaos. There is a random array of household objects out of focus, but in the center, in a mirror, is a sharp, beautiful face that seems to embody both the profound tragedy that has occurred and a kind of resolute transcendence. What does this image mean to you?
A: That image was captured in the subject’s house that was affected by radiation. After 18 months she returns and finds her possessions are still untouched. These residents could only go back to their home for a day and were not even allowed to stay overnight. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster caused approximately 156,000 people to be displaced. This image captures her sense of comfort within her familiar surroundings, as well as a sense of tranquility and inner peace.
Q. This one is kind of eerie and enigmatic — there is a date which, following Japanese convention, is March 11, 2011, the date of the earthquake and tsunami, presented in mirror image, with two faces visible in the “zero” of the number 2014, and there’s a series of curved striations or bands in a murky field below that almost seem to symbolize the abyss. What is the story behind this mysterious image and why did you include it in this portfolio?
A: This image was taken in one of the “memory grounds” that consists of houses that were washed inland by the tsunami. They’re now used as a kind of memorial for people who have come to pay their respects and the mirror image is a platform of photographs on display. It was taken from behind showing a cutout displaying the date of the earthquake and tsunami. I wanted to show the reflections of emptiness but also the strength, the resilient spirit of the Japanese people who rose above the tragedy of loss to display their indomitable courage and selflessness.
Q: In a way, the image of a sad, bedraggled cow that evidently survived the disaster, is the most melancholy image in this entire portfolio because the poor hapless beast is incapable of understanding what happened or able to do anything about it. Can you please tell us where you shot this picture and provide the technical details on lighting and exposure?
A: This image was taken in the town of Namie where cattle have been exposed to radiation. Cattle from Fukushima have developed white dots on their skin. It was taken around 7 PM close to sunset, and shot at ISO 800, 1/25 sec and f/4 with the Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4.
Q. If any of your pictures capture the fickleness of fate, it is the one which shows two houses, one intact in a field of rubble, the other upturned and utterly destroyed. Do you agree with this interpretation, or were you simply documenting what you saw without regard to the ironies of the situation?
A: I was documenting what captured my surroundings and I found out that the destroyed house came from another street, which is located about 10 km away.
Q: There is something very touching and uplifting in your picture of a young boy jumping with a soccer ball held between his feet in front of a desolate ruined building. It’s like a beautiful flower growing in a rubbish heap, and it’s a testament to the persistence of life and joy even in the midst of disaster. Another image that conveys the same feeling is the one showing two American military responders and one Japanese trombone player making people (including a Japanese military guy) smile by playing music on their horns in spite of everything. Where did you shoot these images, and by the way, what shutter speeds did you use to freeze the action in both these pictures?
A: The picture of the military men was shot at the Town Council in Natori and it includes members of the Japanese Defense Force and the United States Army who were performing for the survivors to raise their spirits. It was shot at 1/350 sec. The other image is of Yuhei playing soccer in front of the Kadonowaki primary school in Ishinomaki that was damaged by the tsunami. It was taken at 1/500 sec.
Q: The image of people’s water damaged family pictures hanging forlornly on a clothesline indicates the severity of the disaster, and conveys the time-honored human response of “we save what we can.” However, it also indicates just how important images and memories are in salvaging what remains and in rebuilding our lives. Do you agree, and what do you think this picture says to those who view it?
A: Yes. The image is a statement about how important photographs are once they are taken and preserve moments in time, literally the times of our lives.
Q What do you think you accomplished in creating the “Finding Hope” project, and are these images currently available as a hard copy or online book? Do you exhibit or plan to exhibit them at galleries or other venues in Japan or elsewhere?
A: “Finding Hope” the book gives viewers an insight into the 3-year-long process that the Japanese people have gone through to come out of one of the worst disasters in world history. It reveals that, though they have had to endure unimaginable challenges, they are still positive, loving and hopeful. These images also show my great respect for their humanity. The book will be available in December 2014 in hard copy and online, orders can be made via email. The book will be launched in Singapore at the Leica Galerie in December 2014, Australia in February 2015 and Japan in March 2015.
Thank you for your time, Mathias!
-Leica Internet Team
To see more of Mathias’s work, visit his website.