Almost a year later, we look back at TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey’s work made in northern Japan covering the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami.
First there is shock — disbelief at what you are witnessing with your own eyes. The surface of reality is unimaginable. Huge man-made structures were swept away like toys tossed about by a furious child. Houses, cars, ships and locomotives funneled up river channels, smashed against the sides of hills and swept back again as the raging waters receded, left in grotesque positions, as if by a sculptor gone mad. Towns and villages were annihilated, by a few minutes in the process of a cosmic organism, devoid of knowable intent. The aftershock is a profound sense of grief, amplified by the futility of anger.
Here is an essay, in his words, accompanied by additional images from his coverage.