If you could only take one treasure with you to save from an incoming disaster, what would it be? This was the question raised and answered by the founders of Photohoku, a project which aims to help people rebuild their memories with photos and family albums after the tragic Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.
Many of us know the role and importance of photographs in man’s life: they bring us back to old times, lost memories, and forgotten faces. So, in the event of a tragic event or impending disaster, many of us feel compelled to hang on to photos of our friends and family. Why photos? Because, as Brian Scott Peterson and Yuko Yoshikawa put it, everything else is replaceable.
In the wake of the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, Brian and Yuko decided to start a project called Photohoku, as a way of helping those who lost so much from the dreadful earthquake and tsunami. With the project’s name being a portmanteau of “photo” and “Tohoku,” their goal is to “help rebuild and restart the family albums of those affected by the disaster.”
We believe their cause is something that every Lomographer should learn about, so we got in touch with Brian and asked him to tell us the story behind Photohoku.
1. Who came up with the idea of creating Photohoku? Was it a group effort right from the start?
Photohoku was a collaborative idea of Yuko Yoshikawa and myelf.
We had been collaborating on a family portraiture project for about year prior to starting Photohoku. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami occurred during that time, and like most people, our hearts went out to those who lost everything. Saddened and determined for the people of Tohoku, we felt compelled to help, but like many people around us, we didn’t know exactly how.
We became involved in a number of charitable projects including a collaborative photo book, a photo auction, and our own fundraiser through our family portraiture project and were able to raise some substantial funds, which just inspired us to want to do more.
When we considered how many families affected in the earthquake and tsunami had likely lost their entire photo collections, and how we had been collaborating for the last year, it suddenly became obvious to us how we could help. We’d apply the same ideas of our project of giving families the treasure of photos, to those who lost theirs. We’d go to Tohoku and find people who lost their photos, and make them new ones with instant film, and help them start new photo albums with the photos we would take. We’d also collect our friends and families’ old retired cameras to offer the album recipients so they could continue the albums, basically help them start their photographic lives over. Thus “Photohoku,” a family photo album building effort was born.
2. When did the Photohoku project officially begin?
Officially, the project began on September 11th, which is when we took our first trip to Tohoku—exactly half a year after the disaster itself.
It occurred later to us that, with the project at times being highly emotional, it likely couldn’t have worked as well any earlier or later, than 6 months after the earthquake. After half a year had passed, people affected were able to start sharing more openingly about their loss, and even at times, with blinding fortitude, somehow how find a reason to smile for a photo.
3. Can you tell us something about the firsts of the project—first city you went to, first family you met, first photos you took, first album you gave out?
The first trip to Tohoku was to two of the most devistated cities, Ishinomaki and Onagawa, both in Miyagi Prefecture. We went with a trunkful or instant film, about 20 photo albums, a handful of donated cameras, and not much of a plan. That morning, as we were driving around a decimated port neighborhood to get a sense of the disaster, we came across one of the few still standing homes. A small handful of people, young and old, a family it would seem, were going to and fro about the house, in boots and gloves, with rags and buckets. They would make the perfect first recipients of a Photohoku album.
So we turned around, parked, and approached them with our offer to start a new family photo album for them, only to find out they weren’t a family at all. They were a hodgepodge of volunteers, including some students from Tokyo who had come for the day, two brothers who had come from Osaka to stay indefinitely in Ishinomaki shortly after the tsunami occurred, and the home owner himself, Tosuke-san, all having met by chance. They bluntly told us that they weren’t particularly interested in an album, but they would be happy to have us give a hand with the cleanup of the house. We obliged and were brought some rags and buckets and instructions to clean the walls and ceiling of a particular room.
Within five minutes, the rags and bucket water we’d been given became completely filthy and it was obvious to our hosts that we had never volunteered before.
They told us that the rags we had been given, were given to them, and that there were few, and the water had to be better conserved. Embarrassingly, we had to be shown how to fold a rag properly, and how to make the water last longer, how to clean more efficiently, but it was all a well-needed lesson in understanding the preciousness and scarcity of every resource there.
In the end, everybody agreed to have the photo taken, which we placed in an album, for the home itself, and went on our way, and so perhaps the home itself was the first recipient of a Photohoku album.
Then, a month later, during third visit, we dropped by the same home where we stopped again to say hello and found the brothers again, and the home owner, Tosuke-san, who were all surprised to see us. We were told to wait there and moments later, one of the brothers brought out the album we had given. To our delight, they had continued to fill the pages will images of the home’s progressing cleanup and repairs and the faces of all those who came to volunteer, and other great photos from their community. Presumably, they don’t see many repeat visitors and the fact that we came back a second time amazed them. Tosuke-san, the homeowner said to us, “You are like family to us now.” We knew at that point that Photohoku was working. We’ve since become good friends with Tosuke-san and the Yamamoto bothers.
4. What do you use to take photos with? Did you consider using other equipment?
Having collaborated with Fujifilm on past projects, we petitioned for some of their Instant FP film, to be able to create images right then and there for families, and be able to put them into albums and give them immediately to the recipients. Graciously, Fujifilm agreed to sponsor our project and sent us a small arsenal of peel-apart film instant film, both 3×4 and 4×5. So we use cameras that will take those films.
The cameras have included mostly rangefinder types from Polaroid, Mamiya, and Linhof, but mostly we use Konica Instant Press cameras, which are easy to use for all, and have this truly amazing lens that compliments the film so well, particularly the FP-100 silk.
One problem we have with the old rangefinder instant cameras is that some of them are so cool and interesting that all the kids we encounter want to handle them. We quickly learned that curious kids’ hands and vintage lenses and delicate bellows don’t go that well together. So a recent idea we had was to bring along some more kid-friendly instant cameras, like the Cheki from Fuji, the Holgaroid, or Lomo’s Diana with instant back and let each kid shoot off a few frames during the album making process, and then add those photos to the albums as well. Hopefully we can realize this in the next trip or two (We need cameras and film – hint hint!).
5. What is/are the most challenging aspect/s of the project?
The most challenging part of the Photohoku project is simply to not be doing it everyday. Our hearts are so invested in the project that we wish we could be doing it all the time. But we live in Tokyo and have families to feed ourselves. We are so fortunate to have some incredible supporters but much of Photohoku is a labor of love.
Thus far, we have been afforded the chance to go about once a month, and have brought over a dozen people with us over six trips, started over 100 photo albums, gifted several dozen cameras and given countless photographs. Hopefully in the coming year, we can double that effort and visit twice as frequently, to more places, with more photographers, and affect many more people.
6. What about the most rewarding aspect/s of the project?
Above all, the more rewarding aspect has been the ability to give people a lasting smile, a smile that they can look back on, and remember how strong they were, and still are. We’ve directly witnessed how the photos we’ve given have brightened peoples lives and helped them look not only to the future but connect them to the past. A friend commented on the project saying it reminded her “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, helps 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."
A second reward has been the ability to do what we truly love: make good photos, and have it make a difference. The project is fundamentally about giving photos, rather than taking photos and in that sense, it’s been almost a radical new approach to photography for us. It has allowed us as photographers to, in a sense, disappear from the photo itself, and somehow in doing so, allow for the subject to shine, almost like a musical band simply being the catalyst for the music that comes from beyond. The fact that we literally give the photos away, and that we likely won’t ever see them again, compounds an artistic sense, and carries with it this idea of ‘now’ that is often absent in our other creative projects.
Furthermore, Fuji has graciously provided us enough of their beautiful instant film to be able to shoot without reserve. That, in and of itself, is a reward. Nakabayashi Co. Ltd. has started sponsoring us with photo albums. The film and albums coupled with amazing cameras, warm people, impassioned photographers, AND the fact that it makes the world a little brighter, for everybody? Well, needless to say, it’s not only been an honor, but also a privilege and a joy to be able to do this.
7. Has there been a special or unforgettable experience/s that you encountered while carrying out the project?
Every experience is truly special and unforgettable. We’ve met some amazingly kind people, heard unbeilivable stories of both heroism and loss. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve been invited into homes, been fed, been boozed, been sheltered, been given gifts, been bombarded by children (who know us by name), had songs sung to us, even asked for autographs. Every moment stands out as being THE moment of the project. In all of this, we have learned that even if we take a team of 6 people, it’s freezing cold, and we have few opportunities to connect, that even reaching just one family can have an impact on them for the rest of their lives, maybe even after their gone. In that, its fully worthwhile and unforgettable every time.
8. Lastly, how can people help you with the project or maybe even take part in it?
Essentially, we need finacial help to get photographers, albums to Tohoku and back. It costs approximately ¥10,000 ($130) per person for a round trip by overnight bus, there and back. We also need retired (and working) cameras with chargers and memory cards (address below). You can also find out where to send them on our website: http://photohoku.org. Please join the Facebook Page too for updates and share with friends (and rich uncles!) We need help organizing, help with the websites, press and logisitcal help, and of course photographers who can share the Photohoku vision. If you are interested in helping, send as a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org (ENG) or email@example.com (JP) or write:
Entre House Komazawa
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 154-0012
We leave you with a very inspiring clip of the Photohoku team at work, capturing smiles and immortalizing them on photographs!