“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.
Surveying the Disaster
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.
Rebuilding On the Ground
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 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:
About the Author
- 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.
Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.
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