Photographer Chris Barnes

Photo courtesy of Chris Barnes

Chris Barnes is an Australian photographer currently living in the Niseko area of Hokkaido. Although new to the field of photojournalism (he left his “day” job and hit the road in 2011), he has documented, among other things, the devastation and recovery of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Over the past two years, Barnes has collected an impressive library of work and developed a clear vision built on human connections. In this interview, Barnes talks about how it began and his experience in Japan.


What were you doing before you packed your life into that backpack and set off on your current journey?


I was simply existing, not living. I graduated from psychology at university, and was managing a large outdoor retail store when I got the urge to just go and explore the world. The hardest thing by far is actually making that initial decision to pack everything up, say goodbye to your friends and family, your possessions and the normal life you may have led back home. After a couple of months traveling, I realized it was the best decision of my life. Learning to live so simply and spontaneously is a fantastic feeling, one that I’m not getting sick of any time soon!


Can you describe how and when you ended up in Japan and Hokkaido?

In 2011, a friend of mine suggested we come to Hokkaido to work the winter and then travel around Japan and see where it took us. To be honest, Japan was not high on my list of places to visit when I decided I wanted to explore the world. I knew nothing about its people, its culture or its beauty. This soon became the perfect reason to visit Japan. I fell in love within days and I knew I would enjoy spending a decent amount of time traveling the country, experiencing its unique culture and getting to know its people.I describe Hokkaido to my friends and family as one big national park. The coastline, the mountains, the rivers and the people of Hokkaido give it such a calming feeling compared to many other parts of Japan.

One of the shots from Barnes’ visit to Tohoku one year after the disaster.

What has been the most challenging subject for you to document?
The most challenging was by far my work in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. I had watched all the videos and news reports as the disaster unfolded, I had seen almost every photo that was published to the world. None of this prepared me for seeing the devastation first hand. My initial aim was not only to cover the devastation, but also to document the beauty of the region. I soon realized this was going to be very difficult given the large scale devastation that was still present along the Tohoku coastline.

What was it like shooting in Miyagi and Iwate one year after the disaster?
It was confronting. I never expected to see that amount of devastation one year on. When I first arrived in Rikuzentakata, I was absolutely mind-blown. I could not even see the ocean yet I was surrounded by gutted factories and semi-collapsed houses. As I made my way to the coastline, the enormity of the disaster really sank in. I began to walk the streets, finding children’s toys, mobile phones, photo albums, walking canes and ID cards revealing themselves through the dirt after being buried for so long. The local people were welcoming once I told them the reason for my visit. I never wanted to exploit the region — I wanted to meet its people and hear their stories as best I could. I met a group of fishermen repairing fishing nets in Kesennuma, ironically enough, the first town he mentioned he had visited was actually my home town — Brisbane, Australia. We communicated as best we could, shared a couple of jokes and had a laugh … it’s amazing that they could be surrounded by so much devastation and so many haunting memories yet still have time to have a laugh with a complete stranger. Almost every village I passed driving along the coastline was completely destroyed, literally wiped off the map. I kept asking myself: Why aren’t we still hearing about this on the news?


What kind of work do you do when you’re not shooting in conflict zones or disaster areas? For example, what do you shoot on a daily basis in Hirafu or around Hokkaido?

I try to keep things simple. Gone are the days I would be “snap happy” with the camera, shooting whatever I could. I now look for something different in a place, something that tells more of a story. Sometimes this could be simple human interactions in the streets, or a magical pattern formed by a snowflake on the windscreen of my car. Each place has its own uniqueness, I challenge myself to find it.

Where do you see your photography career taking you next?

I see it taking me further around the world. Ideally I would like an internship with a magazine or newspaper, one which would allow me to travel and document conflict and disaster. Until then, I’ll be packing my bags and searching for it myself.


You can see more work by Chris Barnes on his website.

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