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Tag: Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

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:

Entre House Komazawa
1-3-2-102 Komazawa
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 154-0012

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.


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.

Photohoku by Brian Scott Peterson (HESO Magazine)

HESO Photo of the Week from Damir Sagolj

Photohoku by Damir Sagolj (HESO Magazine)

Photohoku by Damir Sagolj for http://photohoku.org/

Check out our new project, “Photohoku.org“, an effort to help rebuild and restart family photo albums for those in Japan affected by the events of March 11th. We had a super successful pilot run last month and will be visiting again in the coming weeks and as frequently as our supporters will allow. (Support/Suggestions welcome!)

One part of this project that we hadn’t forseen before we embarked on Tohoku was that once we helped these people start new albums, they might not have cameras to take the photos to continue with them. So we’re thinking about asking people who want to help but can’t be here, to dig out their old digital camera out of the closet (with charger) and forward it along and let us help find a new home for it. If you or anybody you know can participate this way, please contact [email protected] (Eng) or [email protected] (JP).

Things are just getting started so stay posted and share with your friends. Thanks!!!

Photo by Damir Sagolj, whose blog can be read here.

On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground

Many friends have suggested I try to write about my experiences since the events of March 11th. Living in Tokyo, I would be a poor candidate for such an endeavor. The ongoing catastrophe is about two hundred miles north of the city and I have not yet experienced any hardship, save the frazzling of multiple aftershocks and concerns over elevated radiation levels. My good fortunes aside, there are many with a deeper background in seismology, nuclear energy, and Japanese political history—journalists, researchers, writers— devoted to the task of chronicling, analyzing, and piecing together what this calamity means for Japan. My larger personal concerns are not what has happened but what shall come to pass.

The changes in Tokyo are more superficial than substantial. Shibuya is no longer a flaming candle, streetlamps are off, and the subdued lighting in train and subway stations is a dingy hue that might lead to a revival in pickpockets’ fortunes. Everyone dreads the summer when rolling blackouts will make it very difficult to overcome the humidity. Air conditioning will once again acquire its luxurious quality. Tokyoites have been asked to conserve energy. Self-restraint is not a problem in brilliant spring weather. But these inconveniences are banal when set against worst-case scenarios—that is, the inevitable monster shake known as the Tokai Earthquake that happens in the Shizuoka region just west of Tokyo with some regularity every 150 years. The last quake was in 1854.

It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world. Click To Tweet

On Dangerous Ground

As tragic as this year’s triple whammy of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown has been, it may pale when measured against the consequences of the inevitable Tokai Quake. Not only may it lead to another tsunami and an eruption of Mt. Fuji (which is seeing some activity for the first time in a long while), but perhaps worst of it all is that Japan may have to deal with the fallout of yet another nuclear crisis that would be much more detrimental to Tokyo— the meltdown of its nuclear power plant at Hamaoka, built almost directly above what is believed will be this disaster’s future epicenter.

Essentially, it does not seem sound judgment to build a nuclear reactor on top of a historically active fault line, especially when your country’s preeminent seismologist argued against the hubris of such an undertaking before construction even began. Dr. Kiyoo Mogi has long argued for the responsible application of nuclear technology on Japan’s vulnerable territory. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the manmade disaster of Fukushima (residents, farmers, fishermen) Dr. Mogi’s good judgment has been vindicated. The authorities at Hamaoka swear that the plant can withstand a major quake, but the same corporate suits made the same fail-safe promise at Fukushima.

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

It seems then in the court of common sense, the government should have taken a proactive role in shutting down the nuclear plant at Hamaoka weeks ago. Already global public opinion is mixed on Japan— there is sorrow for the victims and their families and bitterness at the country’s mismanagement of the crisis. Radiation leaks affect all of us, more or less, since we understand the ecosystem to be something shared by all of us, from the air we breathe to the fish on our plates. It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world.

Every human drama needs a villain, if only to lash out our frustrations and humiliations. The fact that there has been lying, mismanagement, deliberate cover-ups, and general incompetence on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has led to some consternation on the part of the international community. What would conventional wisdom make of Japan should a similar if not more catastrophic meltdown were to occur in short succession? I am helplessly reminded of the aphorism reserved for the gullible: “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

Being a foreigner, it is hard to know exactly what the public’s sentiments are. Most people would like to be let alone of the issue and trust in a benevolent fate. The Japanese are trying to go on with their daily lives and in this beautiful spring weather it is easy to forget the carnage of the north and the direness of the near future. Only occasionally do the aftershocks rattle us into reality, returning the fear that trembles our hearts. But even these, frequent as they are, subside easily enough into the mundane elements of more trivial pursuits.

the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected Click To Tweet

But many Japanese have been politicized for the first times in their lives. Like Middle Easterners uprising against their governments the Japanese are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize. On April 10th a major demonstration in the Tokyo neighborhood of Koenji drew at least ten thousand protesters. It was a very Japanese affair— more like a parade than a protest: wonderful costumes, peaceful inclinations, gentle shout-outs. At the head of the parade, was a simulacrum of a New Orleans jazz band, dressed in razzle-dazzle kimonos and playing popular yesteryear numbers. Some attendees were unironically costumed in radiation suits and gas masks. Most wore sanitary face masks, a usual seasonal big seller for protecting the allergic against hay fever, but now a symbol of our very flimsy protection against radioactivity.

Making good use of the if-no-one-hears-the-tree-falling-in-the-forest theory, Japan’s mainstream media managed to drop the story. It was an election day in Tokyo (the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected) and moreover, that Sunday was the most beautiful weekend day for hanami, cherry blossom viewing.

After the protest I took the train to Yoyogi, Tokyo’s largest park and site of the biggest parties. Arriving just after the sunset, it was surreal to see this forest of pink flowers in twilight, where tens of thousands frolicked, wasted on good sake and cold beer, pleasuring against all arguments to be somber and self-restrained. I couldn’t blame them.

On the 16th this month there was another protest in Shibuya but it was much smaller and I’m worried that the so-called Sakura Revolution might be losing its momentum. That would be a shame since it is the most appropriate week to get out and fight for peace-of-mind. April 20th is Earth Day, and next week on the 26th is the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl.

Understanding Japan’s limited availability of resources, I am not against nuclear energy per se, but am very much in favor of safe and responsible use. It’s bad enough to worry about earthquakes and tsunamis, the sudden catastrophic moment where everything changes. This is more than enough than the average person needs to worry about.

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Creative Ways to Donate to Tohoku Quake Tsunami Relief Effort

Video © Atomicboyx of the children’s relief organization KID’S EARTH FUND

As of this writing (March 22, 2011) the Japanese National Police Agency has 9,199 confirmed deaths, 13,786 people missing as well as more than 125,000 buildings destroyed in the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake, the subsequent tsunami and the ongoing Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident. The World Bank has estimated the damage, between US$122 billion and $235 billion, could take five years to rebuild. No longer should we ask ourselves should I stay or should I go? Rather we should ask, no matter where we may be, what can I do to help?

Here are a few ways people both inside and outside of Japan are helping.

Jennifer Schwartz Gallery talks about Life Support Japan, the effort by photographers and galleries worldwide to raise money for the hundreds of thousands directly affected. Proceeds from the silent auction were donated to Direct Relief International and Habitat for Humanity Japan.

The Life Support Japan auction has ended but that was just the beginning. A number of Tokyo-based photographers have taken the auction idea into their own hands and are publicizing their donated prints via Flickr Charity Print Auction Group. It’s a great way to support the relief effort and commemorate the process with a high quality print for your wall.

©John Nelson

©John Nelson

John Nelson is auctioning the above print (among others) of his photography with all proceeds to be donated to charity. Bid here.

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Tokyo-based photographer Tommy Oshima is auctioning the above “Critical State”. Bid here.

Hello ©Erika Pham

Hello ©Erika Pham

Tokyo-based photographer Erika Pham is auctioning the above print of her exceptional photography. Bid here.

A Picture Is All You Are To Me ©Uchijin

A Picture Is All You Are To Me ©Uchijin

Tokyo-based photographer Uchujin has updates from inside Tokyo and is auctioning the above print of “A Picture Is All You Are To Me ” as well. Bid here.

Crying ©Sean Wood

Crying ©Sean Wood

Tokyo-based photographer Sean Wood is auctioning a print of the above “Crying”. Bid here.

Mannequin ©Jon Ellis

Mannequin ©Jon Ellis

Tokyo_based photographer Jon Ellis is auctioning a print of the above”Mannequin” from the recent Fragments of Tokyo 2011 exhibition. Bid here.

Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms ©Manny Santiago

Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms ©Manny Santiago

Manny is auctioning the above print Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms. Bid here.

Nippon Kizuna Artwork by Justin Sereni

Nippon Kizuna Artwork by Justin Sereni

James Hadfield of Time Out Tokyo writes that “one of the most globe-straddling offerings to date comes courtesy of an international group of Tokyo-based artists, plus a London music writer who had the misfortune (or is it good luck?) to arrive in town the day before the quake hit. Nihon Kizuna collects 50 tracks, many of them unreleased exclusives, from heavyweight electronica producers and avant rockers such as Kode 9, The Qemists, Ernest Gonzales, Daisuke Tanabe and Slugabed. Clocking in at over 3 hours, it raised more than $5,000 on its first day of sale alone.”

Price: £10/$15/1,500 yen/12 euros or more
Available from: Bandcamp, Japanese iTunes Store (from Monday 21)
Proceeds to: Japanese Red Cross Society


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