“Alright, alright. Don’t forget what you see here”. That was the comment made by one of the patrons of the Kobune bar to Munemasa Takahashi, on April 26, 2011, after he said he was not in Miyagi Prefecture (Japan) as yet another volunteer, collaborating on the site that had been reached a month ago and a half before his visit, due to an earthquake of magnitude 9.1, which moved walls of water that bombarded the island’s coast.
Takahashi, who had studied photography and built a life around it, felt helpless with his helplessness in the face of disaster. “When the lifelines – electricity, gas and water – had stopped, when there was no food or fuel, and no way to keep warm, there was nothing photography could do to help them. The photographs just seemed to be documenting and delivering the scenes of the horrific event to the people in safe places”, he would later explain, about the coverage of the tragedy in images, in the prologue to the book Tsunami, Photographs and Then, organized later by him in an effort to portray the construction of the Memory Salvage and Lost & Found projects in a bilingual publication – Japanese and English – offering rich details, interviews with visitors to the exhibitions and, of course, some of the exposed images.
Before that, his greatest hope for avoiding inertia in the face of the tragedy was to travel to one of the least affected areas in the province, to spend money with local traders and to try to move the local economy a little.
“Please let me know if you can help”, said a message spread over the networks eight days after his visit. It was a call by volunteers to integrate the cleaning and cataloging efforts of the photos – family portraits, home records etc. – taken by the tsunami and eventually rescued by the SDF (Self-Defense Forces).
Responding to the summons, Takahashi contacted Professor Kuniomi Shibata, who led the Memory Salvage project, under the supervision of the FUJIFILM Corporation. At this time, the volunteers were still working in the Shibata room, at Otsuma Women’s University, and there were barriers to be circumvented so that people could search for the photographs on their computers – later two pieces of software were developed so that the images could be found according to facial recognition and area in which they were rescued. It was necessary to digitize them. However, the electricity supply was scarce and irregular, which means that they needed a way to do it without depending on the inconsistent power supply, that is, using digital cameras. The obstacle of the method, in turn, was the scarcity of equipment and the working environment. It was contaminated, full of small dust particles from the dry sludge that could damage the equipment, meaning that any tool would have to be donated, not borrowed. Incredulous, again, Takahashi sent a request to the web. The equipment was offered in a few hours, some by totals unknown to the photographer, others by colleagues and teachers at his photography school.
As the cleaning and digitalization process started to go smoothly, with 20 to 80 volunteers showing up every weekend, the reproduced photos started to accumulate. In this way, a space was created to return them to the owners. They were indexed and put back together in physical albums, with three images on their covers for identification by the former owner, providing the return of a portion of what was usurped by the disaster. By 2014, at least 300,000 physical photographs had been returned to their owners. Perhaps, like the character Hana, by writer Amós Oz, people cling to memory like someone who clings to a parapet, in a high place, and in a time when things are so ephemeral, they entrust memories to external devices because they want to leave evidence that identifies them.
The photos arrived at the project washed, soaked and even completely obliterated. For a time, those that were considerably damaged, whose condition was practically impossible to be restored, were assigned to the Hopeless Box, a solution to leave them intact until the team found out what their fate would be, although more and more employees expressed that it would be better to simply discard them. As the campaign progressed, an issue that still hammered the heads of the organizers was the possibility of providing a financial return to the affected community. A temporary housing scheme was beginning to be implemented and needed funds to finance its construction and its workers. They agreed that it was significant to show these records to anyone who could not visit the collection.
One resolution was to expose the photos that were once lost, thus creating the Lost & Found Project, taking them from the International Photography Gallery, in Japan, to the Center for Contemporary Photography, in Australia, and the Aperture Foundation, in the United States. “We chose to show the photos in an exhibition format because we wanted people to see them face-to-face, not through printed matter or the internet”, reports Takahashi, noting that just before the exhibition went off the paper the organizers were still asking questions like: “What if we couldn’t raise enough money for the temporary housing communities? What if it was ethically wrong to show the photos publicly?”.
Following the opposite direction, the show has become a way of delivering a narrative about the people affected by the tsunami that fled a story filled with numbers that would involuntarily be translated into a tale about tragedy or a compelling allegory about hope in the face of chaos. Lost & Found – with records providing rich eminences of history, embracing a larger constellation of what remains of the tragedy and also visually impressive images as a result of its chemical deformation – provides a space for suspension in this dichotomy.
Why do we photograph?
“Why are people always taking photographs?” it is a question that seems to plague Munemasa Takahashi recurrently, at least throughout the writing of the book Tsunami, Photographs and Then.
Photography creates a reality that exists precisely in it, neither before nor outside it, it provides an indicative trace of who was there, as they looked like. Walter Benjamin would affirm that “in the cult of the memory of loved ones, distant or disappeared, the value of cult of images is the last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, in old photos, for the last time emanates aura. That is what lends them that melancholy beauty, which cannot be compared to anything”.
If the photographs grouped for the Lost & Found project are well received by visitors, it may be possible to speak of a reframing of what these photographs have symbolized, moving away from an exclusive testimony of disaster, returning to approach a channeler of the universal issues of being human; as Ursula Le Guin wrote, of what is “in time’s womb, and death, and chance”.
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