Photohoku Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

“If a photo is a thousand words, what’s a whole album worth?”

Photohoku–a portmanteau of Photo and Tōhoku–is a project by which we rebuild the photo albums lost in the March 11th tsunami one photo at a time. Here is how it came to be.


The Japanese word Tōhoku (東北) is a generalization meaning “Northeast” and refers to the six prefectures on the northern end of the main island of Honshu: Akita and Yamagata to the west separated from Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate on the eastern Pacific coast by the Ōu mountain range running like a spine from Lake Inawashiro in the south to Aomori’s Shimokita Peninsula in the north.

Much has been written about this forbidding zone, including the songs of the Ryōjin Hishō or Songs To Make The Dust Dance of twelfth-century Japan as translated by Yung-Hee Kim:



omoi wa michinoku ni
koi wa suruga ni kayounari
misomezariseba nakanaka ni
sora ni wasurete yaminamashi

 

My longing goes as far as Michinoku,
as my love wanders Suruga;
if it had not been love at first sight,
it would be easy to forget, fading into the distant air.



Here Michinoku refers to the interior road, the end of the known world. It may have been some of the impetus for Bashō’s own poetic travel writings through Fukushima, Miyagi and beyond, entitled, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道) or The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

A Shinto torii overlooks Ishinomaki Bay


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Mountain-sized heaps of refuse dot the landscape in Ishinomaki


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Panoramic view of Ishinomaki Bay - Note the trash pyramid on the left - where Yoshida-Sensei's house once stood

Surveying the Disaster


It is not far-fetched to say that Tōhoku brings to mind the mystique of an impregnable land of mountains clothed in cold white more than half the year, all the while boasting some of the most scenic coastline, not only in the Japanese archipelago, but in the world. That was all but washed away during the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tidal wave off the Pacific coast of Miyagi. From Miyako in Iwate to Sōma and Ishinomaki in Miyagi, heights of the tsunami wave were said to have averaged from 8 to 10 meters (20-30 feet) high, with reports of inundations up to 30 meters (100 feet) high in Ōfunato. Notwithstanding the implications of potential nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Plants I and II, how does one react to the 300,000 displaced people in the Tōhoku region, the shortages of food, water, shelter, medicine and fuel, the overall devastation to the millions of people who live in these rugged coastal towns? Only as of October 11, 2011 are local authorities finished building temporary housing units for the survivorswho saw their homes and all of their possessions, from cars to clothes to photographs, destroyed in an instant. What would happen next?Jump to the frenetic aftermath of late March and April amid the countrywide shortages of water, food and electricity, with everyday people making heroic sacrifices, humanitarian organizations scrambling for relief supplies with the government vacillating on what to do about a seemingly corrupt TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Scores of grassroots movements rose up from the confounding depths. One such, led by the enigmatic photographer Dairou Koga, owner of Tegamisha Hibari Books in Tsutsujigaoka, Tokyo, gathered several photographers to create Tokyo Ga, a photobook showcasing images from photographers across Japan, all proceeds of which go to the Red Cross. Doing the Tokyo-Ga charity book inspired some local Tokyo photographers to offer to take family portraits for charity. Word of mouth attracted tens of families to the cause and raised nearly two thousand dollars, donated to Ashinaga, a charity that helps children orphaned by the tsunami.

A little more time passes and the 24-hour news cycle is inevitably distracted by other stories: the Arab Spring, Gaddafi, rioting in London, a potential double-dip recession. Much as the waters of the tsunami eventually receded, the ephemeral passage of time flowed on, but what was left behind? For most life goes on as it were. Yet not for the millions of survivors up north, many of whom were still living on cots in gymnasiums, and eating out of communal rice cookers, awaiting their temporary housing. The word permanent begins to take on differing shades of meaning. Here is where the disconnect occurs. The world outside has allowed the ravaged area to fall by the wayside and mostly picks up on stories of a nuclear bent. But what about Tokyo? Has that old love-at-first-sight mystique stepped in to cordon off the impenetrable interior road and to dissociate the rest of Japan–mired as usual in their own humid summer–from the survivors and to focus, if on anything, on no confidence in yet another Japanese Prime Minister? Despite all this people are still full of anxious energy, searching for projects which to devote themselves. Many have the same idea–to go see the area for themselves. But how to do something special, something different, more than a book. But what exactly?

Tokyo is full of photographers, and more to the point, cameras: beyond 35mm, there is a galaxy of used medium and large format, panoramics, Hasselblad with Zeiss perfection, the German masterpiece Linhof and Japan’s own Mamiya Universal with the magical 100mm f2.8 lens, the Polaroid and the Konica Instant Press. Aha, Polaroids! Too bad they’re out of business. Fuji then. What about taking a bunch Fuji instant film and giving the photo to the people right then and there? A contact at Fujifilm had donated over 40 cases of film (20 pack / 200 photos per case) of everything they have: standard, 4×5 color, black and white, and told us there was more where that came from. How much they would love that, the kids and their parents, forging new memories on the spot? No doubt they lost their own photo albums. This would be a way to start again. Rebuild life by making new memories.

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Twins posing with their father receive Instant Fujis prints for their new photo albums


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

A young boy poses with an insect net for his portrait

Rebuilding On the Ground


Photography is about capturing the proper light, but timing can be just as important. Arriving in Ishinomaki–roughly five hours by car from Tokyo–just after sunrise and ascending a local hilltop provides the clearest vista of the beautiful crescent-shaped bay. Telltale signs of all the destruction begin to appear, but without a guide it’s difficult to know just what happened. Local resident and English teacher Yoshida-sensei approaches and politely points to an orderly 7-story pile of debris, says that was where his house was. He talks of being stranded on an island for two days with his students, and eventually rescued by self-defense forces. Is it okay to ask him if his loved ones are safe? How to say this without seeming ignorant, insensitive, or oblivious to his plight? How to even begin asking this question of people? In a warm voice Yoshida-sensei says that six months have passed and now, finally, we can start to talk about things.

Having gotten the lay of the land from on high is different than taking in all the devastation on the ground. The pure fetid stench of the port, the piles of rubbish, twisted heaps of metal, jumbles of defunct cars, the rusted and gutted skeletons of houses and offices, blasted concrete rubble of empty schools and hospitals, the incongruity of a warzone-like appearance in idyllic coastal Japan boggles the mind. Everything is a photograph. All of this should be in Time Magazine. Every single one of these people, the busloads of masked volunteers stretching and loitering, the locals toiling at a deliberate pace, the caravans of bicyclists rolling over the pebbled streets, the school children screaming and frolicking like nothing has happened at all, all of them deserve recognition, not only for surviving the deluge–likely while losing family and friends–but for the strength to continue in the face of boundless adversity.

The inundation with international media coverage has inured the denizens of Ishinomaki to press coverage. It is understandable that most do not react to cameras in the typical Japanese manner (flashing a peace sign), nor do they acknowledge requests or return simple greetings. Taking polaroids at the temporary housing units felt like being spectators at a zoo. It was unnatural until the locals realized that these were gifts, that these photographs of themselves and their families were theirs to keep and, what’s more, there is no negative. No reciprocal trace of their image to be taken away from them. This is both literally and figuratively, a new beginning.

Meeting all six members of the Saijo family and talking to them outside of their temporary housing unit, asking questions, getting to know them and hearing their stories feels like a really important part of the process of healing. Just having someone to listen to what you say and try to empathize, rather than writing and recording it for a sound bite, this is what is often missing from humanitarian missions. Providing people with a photograph, a photo album–something they do not need, somatically speaking–is an often overlooked step in getting back to feeling like a part of the human race.

Looking back over everything that took place, realizing that it is almost impossible to relay to anyone with mere words, one reaches for the photograph of the kids posing with their dad, a few musicians playing shamisen improvised from snow shovels at a local festival, a panorama of a seemingly peaceful bay, which in reality traces the arbitrary and destructive power of nature. How to explain this? How to make an anecdote out of it? Yoshida-sensei was right. They just don’t get it, they couldn’t.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then when you lose a whole photo album it’s like the washing away of your entire past. The fact remains that Fujifilm donating cases of film has allowed tens of hundreds of families to begin to rebuild their lives in a different way than just what is necessary to survive. The new photo albums are a way to remember lost pictures, forgotten memories. They provide a map to your own memories.

The goal of Photohoku is to photograph every family at every temporary housing unit in the affected areas, any family that wants a new photo album. Beyond that the goal is to shoot every family in Japan that lost their family photos and want a new album. It is ambitious but possible with the continued support of Fujifilm and individuals like you. People are ready to pick up the pieces. It’s not too soon nor too late, it’s the perfect time right now.

Perhaps this reader comment sums it up best: “This project amazes me on so many levels, not least of which is what it does to remind me of just how very special a photograph can be, in providing a touchstone in the now that, while it cannot restore all that has been lost is, by all accounts, helping to link the present with the past for the people of Tohoku as they attempt to rebuild their lives. Never has the axiom: a picture is worth a thousand words, felt more apt.”


Please consider sharing anything you can, even if its just your moral support and this link. We’ll be visiting again the first week of November.

Please also consider donating previous working digital cameras (and chargers), as we will give them to the same families that we are providing started albums for, so they can continue them. Eventually, we would like to facilitate printing the photos that they will take with your cameras. We need help realizing all of these efforts.

Please mail cameras (or anything else you want to get to Tohoku) to:

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Yuko talks with a local man at the temporary housing unit


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Yoshida-sensei and family receive their new photo album


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Deluged & battered but still standing, the flag of Japan flaps on


 

About the Author

Brian Scott Peterson is a photographer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Brian Scott Peterson: “We realized when we gave them the photos. It’s amazing how people reacted. They cried. We cried. Its the most fulfilling photographs I have ever taken and perhaps the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life. I feel guilty how good it makes me feel to do it, but it’s all I want to do. I wish I could be doing it right now.” His website is here.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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