As the minibus winds through the foothills of northern Fukushima, the Geiger counter flashes blue and buzzes loud alerts — but it doesn’t distract Brian Peterson. The 35-year-old American holds up a boxy Konika Instant Press — what he calls his “magic camera” — then explains how to load it, set the aperture and remove jammed film without ruining the entire stock.

Although the process sounds complicated, the other 14 passengers follow his directions unfazed. Tokyo-based designers and photographers from half a dozen countries, they know the ins and outs of cameras and many earn a living shooting fashion shows, weddings and war zones. Today, however, they’re all volunteering their services for free — and while Peterson’s next instruction must run counter to everything they’ve ever learned, none of them bats an eyelid.

“Remember not to bring any of the pictures home with you. Don’t even keep the negatives,” he says.

Beside him, Yuko Yoshikawa, the 28-year old cofounder of Photohoku, emphasizes the point: “We’re not here to take photos. We’re here to give them.”

Following the March 11 earthquake, Tokyo residents Peterson and Yoshikawa were determined to do everything they could to help survivors in Tohoku. Peterson, who’d been working as a photographer since he arrived in Japan in 2004, donated pictures to a charity book and auction. Yoshikawa, manager of family photography studio Tokyo Kids, organized a volunteer photo shoot. Over the next few months, however, they both grew frustrated with the way charity projects tended to run out of steam and the funds raised become tangled in red tape before they could reach those who needed them most.

“That was why we created Photohoku. We wanted to put our knowledge of photography into practice by making new albums for people who’d lost theirs in the tsunami,” explains Yoshikawa.

To realize this goal, the pair decided on a two-step plan. First, they’d take photographs of the survivors with instant film to start making new family albums for them immediately. Secondly, they’d distribute donated digital cameras to allow them to continue taking photographs long after the Photohoku volunteers had left.

In September, Peterson and Yoshikawa made their first trip to Ishinomaki city, one of the areas in Miyagi Prefecture worst hit by the tsunami.

“We thought that even if we could only help one family, it would be worth it. But by the end of our first visit, we had taken 100 photographs and filled three albums. It convinced us that there was a real need for this project and it gave us the confidence to expand,” says Yoshikawa.

Over the next several months, Peterson and Yoshikawa returned to Ishinomaki four times, accompanied by a growing team of volunteer photographers laden with boxes of instant film and albums (supplied free by Fujifilm and Nakabayashi) and digital cameras donated by members of the public. During these journeys, Photohoku volunteers took and gave away more than 1,000 photographs, which helped to start 56 new family albums.

On this, their sixth trip, however, the pair have decided to bring the project to Shinchi, a town of 8,000 located in the far north of Fukushima Prefecture.

“Small towns like this are no longer on the news. Although they’re out of sight and out of people’s minds, I worry that the disaster is far from over,” says Peterson.

Peterson’s concerns seem confirmed by Sunao Nishimaki, the Shinchi town official who meets the Photohoku team upon their arrival.

“Last April and May, we were receiving more than 300 volunteers a day, but not many people come here anymore,” explains Nishimaki.

He distributes tourist board brochures published just before the quake and packed with pictures of happy Shinchi residents describing what makes their town so special: the fresh seafood, the fields of rice and tulips, the hiking trails through the surrounding hills.

The events of March 2011 stripped away almost everything that once made these residents proud. The 10-meter tsunami swept 600 buildings into the bay, filling it with so much debris that local fishermen still can’t set their nets. Tepco’s meltdowns roughly 55 km to the south peppered the town’s hills with toxic hot spots that left wild boar, plums and mushrooms too irradiated to consume.

“Even though the paddies are now within government safety standards, nobody wants to buy Fukushima rice,” says Nishimaki. He points sadly to the slogan on the front page of the brochure: “Shinchi: a town overflowing with smiles.”

Eleven months after the quake, residents whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami or rendered uninhabitable by the nuclear disaster are now living in eight temporary housing complexes. Over the next seven hours, Photohoku volunteers visit three of these sites. Located among dusty parking lots equipped with solar-powered radiation monitoring stations, half-hearted hand-drawn posters reflect the limbo experienced by residents torn between a need to feel at home and the fear of being abandoned here forever.

Some of these families have heard about Photohoku’s visit and arranged appointments in advance. One of the first to have their pictures taken are Tomohiro Nagakura and his 3-year old son, Yushin, who currently live in the Hirobata Temporary Housing Complex. Initially, the camera makes the boy shy, but after some gentle coaxing from ad firm employee Yoko Hirose and Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko, an engineer for a recipe website, Yushin soon relaxes into the swing of things and pulls poses worthy of any playground superhero.

The photographers snap a dozen pictures of Yushin, his parents and his younger sibling, then they carefully arrange them in a Hello Kitty album and present them to the Nagakuras.

“I’m so happy these photographers came all this way to help. It means a lot for us as a family,” says the father.

As identical scenes play out at the other housing complexes, the residents show their appreciation to the photographers with platefuls of mochi, candies and origami spinning tops. In the early afternoon, the volunteers regroup at the Maeda Temporary Housing Complex, where the temperature has dropped below zero and there’s nobody outside among the 68 bleak prefabricated units. But this does not deter Peterson. He spots an elderly resident bundled up against the cold and asks if he’d like his photograph taken.

“Dressed like this?” replies the old man, pointing doubtfully at his own weather-worn clothes.

“You look great,” Peterson reassures him.

Shrugging, the resident stands still for Peterson to take his shot. Done, he begins to walk away, but Peterson calls him back. Unpeeling the instant film with a flourish, he shows it to the old man. And that’s when it becomes clear why he calls it his “magic camera.”

A Shinchi resident poses for Peterson's 'magic camera.'
A Shinchi resident poses for Peterson’s ‘magic camera.’

First the old man frowns. Next he smiles. Finally he laughs loud enough to bring his neighbors to their doors. As he poses eagerly for another shot, the other residents ask the Photohoku volunteers to take their pictures, too. Over the next few hours, they shoot unemployed fishermen and farmers, couples and their pets, and a 60-something resident whose once-forgotten English suddenly returns in a gush of giggled reminiscences about a trip to Los Angeles 40 years before.

But it is the children who most enchant the photographers — especially Peterson. And, in their turn, the children love him, too. They trail behind the American begging for his autograph, his hat, asking where he’s from: “France?” “Africa?” “Australia?”

“Disneyland?” guesses one small girl. She’s the closest of them all — and in more ways than one. Because in his battered fedora with his tripod on his shoulder, Peterson does resemble a fairy-tale character here to bring back the gift of smiles to these traumatized youngsters.

As the failing light adds an urgency to his work, Peterson snaps two dozen pictures drawing upon every trick he knows to keep a child’s attention — from pleas to kiss and jokes not to smile to a squeaky toy giraffe that piques the interest of a tired, distracted baby.

All too often residents like these have been mined by the media for sympathetic sound bites and shots of proud or pitiful survivors. But Photohoku’s policy of giving — not taking — photographs seems vindicated here by the Maeda residents’ relaxed and uninhibited laughter.

However, habits of a lifetime are sometimes hard to break, and towards the end of the day, one of the pictures seems to tempt Peterson to break Photohoku’s code.

It’s a photo he’s just taken of two mothers and their children. The wind had been threatening to turn their smiles to shivers but he’d won them back by telling them to hold still, then shouting “Boo!” The resulting picture caught them at the precise moment they burst into laughter.

Behind them, the golden sunshine hides the temporary houses in shadow, and with the gentle hills on the horizon, Shinchi resembles the place it used to be — the town from the tourist brochure before that black wall of water and the need for daily radiation readings.

Peterson slips off a glove and runs his fingers over the surface of the photo. It’s a perfect shot, one to frame or sell or treasure forever.

“Can I see it?” asks one of the mothers.

The question breaks the spell and seems to remind Peterson why he came here. He gives the picture a long, final look as though to store it in his memory. Then he lets it go.

Later, as the volunteers warm themselves in Maeda’s makeshift meeting room, Peterson explains, “These photos are some of the best I’ve ever taken. But they mean so much more to the people we give them to.”

Maeda resident Miyoko Suzuki, who lost her albums in the tsunami, agrees. “These are bad times for us. But in the future, I want our children to be able to look back through the photographs we received today and remember that we weren’t alone — that people came here to help.”

Before boarding the bus back to Tokyo, Yoshikawa tallies the final numbers for the day.

“We gave away 240 photographs and started 18 new albums. We also donated 12 digital cameras to help people keep their albums going. But today was just the beginning. When we come back, we’ll bring printers and paper. We want to be able to give everyone here the lasting smile of photographs.”

Memory bank: Proud father Tomohiro Nagakura shows off his son, Yushin, and a photo given to him by Photohoku at the Hirobata Temporary Housing Complex in Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture. | JON MITCHELL PHOTOS
Memory bank: Proud father Tomohiro Nagakura shows off his son, Yushin, and a photo given to him by Photohoku at the Hirobata Temporary Housing Complex in Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture. | JON MITCHELL PHOTOS

Readers wishing to donate digital cameras — or participate in Photohoku’s upcoming visits to Tohoku — can contact Brian Peterson at brian@photohoku.org or Yuko Yoshikawa at yuko@photohoku.org. More information about Photohoku can be found at www.photohoku.org. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.