Memory Records in Tsunami, Photographs and Then
The photograph is part of the "Lost & Found" project and can be found in the book "Tsunami, Photographs and Then", its authors and stories remain unknown. Courtesy of Munemasa Takahashi.
"Cright, right. Do not forget what you will see here.” This was the comment made by one of the regulars at the Kobune bar to Munemasa Takahashi, on April 26, 2011, after he said that he was not in Miyagi Prefecture (Japan) as another volunteer, collaborating in the place that had been hit a month ago. and a half before his visit, by an earthquake of magnitude 9.1, which moved walls of water that bombarded the coast of the island.

Takahashi, who had studied photography and built a life around it, he felt helpless in his powerlessness in the face of disaster. “When electricity, gas and water stopped, when there was no food or fuel and no way to warm up, there was nothing photography could do to help them. The photographs seemed to document and deliver the scenes of the terrible event to people in safe places”, he would later explain, about the coverage of the tragedy in images, in the prologue of the book Tsunami, Photographs and Then, later organized by him in an effort to portray the construction of the projects memory salvage e Lost & Found in a bilingual publication – Japanese and English – offering rich details, interviews with visitors to the exhibitions and, of course, some of the images on display.

Before that, his best hope to avoid inertia in the face of the tragedy was to travel to one of the least affected areas in the province, spend money on local merchants and try to boost the economy of the place.

Memory Records in Tsunami, Photographs and Then
The photograph is part of the Lost & Found project and can be found in the book Tsunami, Photographs and Then, its authors and stories remain unknown. Courtesy of Munemasa Takahashi.

“Please let me know if you were able to collaborate,” read a message spread across the networks eight days after his visit. It was a call for volunteers to join in the efforts to clean up and catalog the photos – family portraits, home records, etc. – carried away by the tsunami and eventually rescued by the SDF (Self-Defense Forces).

Responding to the summons, Takahashi contacted Professor Kuniomi Shibata, who was leading the project. memory salvage (Memory Rescue), under the supervision of the FUJIFILM Corporation. At this time, the volunteers were still working in Shibata's room, at the Otsuma Women's University, and there were barriers to be bypassed so that people could search for the photographs on their computers - later two software were developed so that the images could be found in a different way. according to facial recognition and the area in which they were rescued. It was necessary to digitize them. However, the electricity supply was scarce and erratic, meaning they needed a way to do so without relying on inconsistent power supply, ie using digital cameras. The method's obstacle, in turn, was the scarcity of equipment and the working environment. It was contaminated, full of tiny dust particles from the dried sludge that could damage equipment, meaning any tools had to be donated, not borrowed. In disbelief, again, Takahashi sent a request to the web. The equipment was offered in a few hours, some by total strangers to the photographer, others by colleagues and teachers from his photography school.

As the cleaning and digitization process began to progress smoothly, with 20 to 80 volunteers showing up every weekend, the reproduced photographs began to pile up. In this way, a space was created to return them to the owners. They were indexed and reassembled into physical albums, with three images on their covers for identification by the former owner, providing the return of a portion of what was usurped from them by the disaster. By 2014, at least 300 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 ledge, in a high place, and at a time when things are so ephemeral they trust 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 severely damaged, whose state was virtually impossible to restore, were assigned to the Hopeless Box, a solution to leave them intact until the team figured out what their fate would be, though. more and more contributors expressed that it would be better to simply discard them. As the campaign progressed, an issue that still stuck in the minds of 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 pay for its construction and its workers. They agreed that it was significant to show these records to those who could not visit the collection.

As researcher Boris Kossoy once wrote, “when the settings, characters and monuments have disappeared, sometimes the documents survive”

One resolution was to expose the photos that were once lost, thus giving rise to the Lost & Found Project, taking them from the International Gallery of Photography in Japan to the Center for Contemporary Photography in Australia and the Aperture Foundation in the United States. “We chose to display the photos in an exhibition format because we wanted people to see them in person, not through printed material or the Internet,” says Takahashi, also noting that just before the exhibition went live, organizers were still asking themselves questions. like, “What if we can't raise enough money for temporary housing? What if it's ethically wrong to show the photos publicly?

Moving in the opposite direction, the show became a way of delivering a narrative about people affected by the tsunami that escaped a story filled with numbers that would unwittingly be translated into a tale about tragedy or a forceful allegory about hope in the face of chaos. Lost & Found – with records providing rich eminences of history, embracing a larger constellation of what is left of the tragedy and also visually striking imagery as a result of its chemical deformation – provides a space for suspension in this dichotomy.

Why do we photograph?

“Why are people always taking pictures?” is a question that seems to plague Munemasa Takahashi recurrently, at least throughout the writing of the book. Tsunami, Photographs and Then.

Memory Records in Tsunami, Photographs and Then
The photograph is part of the Lost & Found project and can be found in the book Tsunami, Photographs and Then, its authors and stories remain unknown. Courtesy of Munemasa Takahashi.

Photography creates a reality that exists precisely in it, neither before nor outside of it, it provides an indexical trace of who was there, what they looked like. Walter Benjamin would say that “in the cult of remembering loved ones, distant or disappeared, the cult value of images is the last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, in old photographs, an aura emanates for the last time. This is what lends them that melancholy beauty, which cannot be compared to anything else.”

If the photographs grouped for the Lost & Found project are well received by visitors, it may be possible to speak of a re-signification of what these photographs symbolized, moving away from an exclusive witness of disaster, returning to a channel for the universal issues of being. human; as Ursula Le Guin wrote, than there is “in the womb of time, and death, and chance”.

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