Family photographs are essentially a collection of memories, snapshots of happiness frozen in time. As treasured as these printed images may be to the individuals captured in them, they are no match for the destructive power of the tsunami that swept away town after town along the Tohoku coast on March 11, 2011.
Hundreds of thousands of family photographs were salvaged by Self-Defense Force troops, police officers, firefighters and volunteers during search and rescue operations in the wake of the catastrophe. Heavily water-damaged, they were typically thrown into boxes and left alongside other personal keepsakes that were assembled in local school gymnasiums and municipal buildings that had been transformed into temporary storage facilities.
Munemasa Takahashi, a young photographer based in Tokyo, volunteered to join a project titled “Memory Salvage” that had been launched by a professor at Otsuma Women’s University to clean and scan photographs that had been recovered by search teams in Yamamoto-cho, Miyagi Prefecture, in a bid to return them to their owners.
Takahashi and his team cleaned and digitized more than 750,000 photos that had been salvaged in the small town near the prefectural border with Fukushima, returning about 300,000 of them to their respective owners.
However, Takahashi was torn about what to do with the images left in what he called the “hopeless box.” Many were heavily damaged and the people featured in them were by and large unrecognizable — though deeply moving scenes could still be made out: children at the beach in high summer playing tug-of-war, a couple on their wedding day, friends on a ski trip and school sports days. And yet the same swirling waters that swept away thousands of lives had also left eerily similar aquatic patterns on the photos, erasing faces in much the same way it had erased lives.
Takahashi ultimately decided to put the photos on display in an exhibition format because he wanted people to see them face to face, not through printed matter or on the Internet. To do this he displayed the images in galleries in Tokyo as well as in exhibition spaces in the United States, Australia and Italy — and now in book form.
“Tsunami, Photographs, and Then: Lost & Found Project” is essentially a record of how the restoration project evolved over time, featuring comments from everyone involved as well as feedback from exhibition visitors both at home and abroad.
The heart-wrenching images, however, form the bedrock of this bilingual coffee table book, and they successfully capture the simultaneous feelings of hope and sadness readers are likely to experience when flicking through the pages: hope that the people in the photos survived and a sense of sadness that they may never be reunited.