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Aerial Photo of Fukushima Protest – Harder than It Looks

When an estimated 500 people spelled "Fukushima Is Here" at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, the critical aerial shot that would show the protest to the world turned out be a very near miss, says the human mural's conductor, Brad Newsham of Oakland.

An estimated 500 people spelled out "Fukushima Is Here" on Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2013. The protest was aimed at the radiation danger from the leaking nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan.
An estimated 500 people spelled out "Fukushima Is Here" on Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2013. The protest was aimed at the radiation danger from the leaking nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan.
It seems easy.

We've all seen those aerial photos of people lined up as human letters to make a political statement. Just get a bunch of people and a helicopter with a photographer inside. Piece of cake, right?

Not if you were part of last weekend's human mural at Ocean Beach in San Francisco – staged by FukushimaResponse.org, a Bay Area group that includes members in Berkeley and Oakland and that seeks to focus attention on the radiation danger to the West Coast and the rest of the planet from the leaking nuclear reactors that underwent a 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, Japan.

It was noon, Oct. 19, time for the helicopter and photographer to arrive. A gathering that organizers numbered at 500 people were on the beach, spelling "Fukushima Is Here" in 50-foot-tall letters on the sand next to the Cliff House.

But no helicopter was in sight.

The conductor of the human message board, Brad Newsham, pulled out his phone to make a call and found messages from the photographer and helicopter pilot, who had just discovered that there's a bird sanctuary at the Cliff House and that he could be fined $10,000 for coming within 1,000 feet of it. The pilot didn't want to take the risk.

The human letters meanwhile were lying down in correct formation, waiting for the flag signal from a person on a step ladder to stand up for the photo.

"I'm surprised that I didn't panic," said Newsham, who lives just off Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

And then suddenly the helicopter was coming. It approached and then stopped, hovering away from the gathering, instead of overhead for the expected shot – keeping its distance from the Cliff House and bird sanctuary.

The photographer started shooting from a side angle. The stand-up signal was given. Wisps of fog wafted over the beach. Newsham didn't know what the camera was capturing.

When the shoot was over, some photos were obscured by fog, and virtually all the rest – with the participants standing up – didn't work because the angle of view was so steep that the letters weren't clearly delineated, Newsham said.

However, the photographer had managed to squeeze off one shot without fog and before the group stood up. That photo saved the day. (See attached.)

"I came within 1/500th of a second – one shutter click – of having 500 people show up to a complete disaster," Newsham said.

Newsham – a writer, author of two travel books and San Francisco cab driver for 28 years until he sold his taxi in May – is no stranger to staging aerial shots of people spelling out messages.

He said most of his previous efforts were on Ocean Beach, beginning seven years ago with 1,000 people forming 100-foot-tall letters saying, "Impeach!" (aimed at President Bush and Vice President Cheney).

He did about a dozen such events in the past, though none so close to the Cliff House as the Fukushima protest. 

He said he announced his retirement from the human mural enterprise about a year ago, but that he decided to do this one after the FukushimaResponse group approached him about 10-12 months ago.

"I said an immediate yes to them," he said. "I'm completely engrossed in this issue now."

More than two years after an earthquake and tsunami led to the triple meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, Japanese officials and the plant operators are still trying to stop and contain radiation escaping from the facility. Scientists do not agree on whether the leaks pose significant risks outside of the vicinity of the plants.

"We are faced with this huge threat and this opportunity to take action and save humanity and future civilization and life on this planet," Newsham said.

The movement to halt use of nuclear energy in favor of less destructive energy sources "has the potential for us to transform ourselves as a race," Newsham said. "We can finally get it that we're all in this together. This dwarfs the Tea Party. This dwarfs the economy. This dwarfs everything else."

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