Photographs in the rubble: The images left behind by the Japan earthquake

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About 3,000 photographs in plastic sleeves line one wall of the Hiroshi Watanabe Studio in West Hollywood. Floor to ceiling, they resemble a tiled mosaic. But upon closer inspection, they are clearly damaged. Soaked by water and mud, bleached by the sun and eaten away by bacteria, some barely retain any color or sense of image.

“I suspect this is a baby photo,” says Munemasa Takahashi, pointing to one photograph on the wall. He spoke with KCRW through Kazuko Shimizu, a translator and interpreter.

Takahashi is a 31-year-old photographer from Tokyo, and the leader of Project Salvage Memory.

“I’m pretty sure this is from a holiday, they must have gone traveling somewhere,” Takahashi continued. “So you see daily scenes of photos that many people take.”

Japanese defense forces discovered the photos while conducting search and rescue operations in Yamamoto, a town in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan, which was ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami one year ago. Takahashi was asked to help save and digitize a number of the images.

“In the process we found many photographs which were too heavily damaged to be returned to their owners,” Takahashi said. “And we thought it’d be a shame to throw them out.” Instead, Takahashi mounted this exhibit.

He says that living in Tokyo, the statistics of people dead and homes destroyed failed to convey the enormity of the loss. “I felt that behind these numbers, there are real people. And these photos show special occasions for a particular family,” Takahashi said. “And these are kind of photos that anybody would take.”

Another member of the team is Kazuto Hoshi. He’s 33, a travel agent, and was on a business trip to Tokyo when the earthquake struck his hometown of Yamamoto. A friend, Professor Kuniomi Shibata, drove him back. Five days later, the town was in complete disarray. The city government was operating out of a tent. There were few supplies left, and a complete lack of information. Hoshi recalled volunteering at a shelter for the beleaguered residents.

“One of them went back home and came back with photographs that were all muddy from the flood,” Hoshi said. “And he asked me, ‘can I do anything about these photos? Is there a way to clean them, to save them?’ And that was really the start of this project, to wash all the photos.”

Prof. Shibata organized a team of researchers. The photos were brought to an elementary school gymnasium, where they were sorted and cleaned.

“We believe we washed about 750,000 photographs,” Takahashi said. “And at least we were able to return 20,000 photographs, and 13,000 photo albums.”

Hoshi still lives in Yamamoto, working alongside his friends and his parents to rebuild their city. His wife Mayu and four-year-old daughter Asumi are fine, but he sent them to live with his wife’s parents in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan. He thinks they’ll be safer there, further from the nuclear radiation zone. Meanwhile, he continues to help his hometown recover. He hopes these photos remind people of how much still needs to be done.

“The situation really has not improved that much, I’m afraid,” Hoshi said. “I think we probably slowly started our journey towards recovery. We will continue to need support from lots of people.”

This exhibit has been shown once in Tokyo. But this is the first time it’s been shown outside Japan. It’s set to travel to New York next, then to Australia.

The exhibit is currently up at the Hiroshi Watanabe Studio, at 8810 Melrose Avenue, 2F, in West Hollywood. It’s on display until March 25.