After they mourned the loss of loved ones and neighbors, of homes and businesses, many of the victims of the 3-11 tsunami in Tohoku mourned the loss of their photographs. Recovery efforts to find, dry and restore photographs launched with the help of professional teams and volunteers. The endeavor earned widespread media attention in part because it captured a truth everyone recognized: photographs are precious.

Embracing that spirit, one group set out to give new photographs back to some of Tohoku’s people. Founded by Brian Peterson and Yoshikawa Yuko, Photohoku (photo + Tohoku) takes groups of photographers to temporary shelters in Tohoku. While the primary purpose of the group is to take portraits of families and create photo albums for them, since embarking on this project, Peterson explains that there is a deeper, perhaps more important, social aspect.

“We talk to the kids a lot. They get to try out their English and have a lot of fun. We’re there to do whatever is needed of us. Some people just want to tell us stories. Some of them are outrageous. One woman was trapped in her car with her children and nephew when the tsunami came. They climbed out of their window and sat on the car and floated down the street. Someone else on a roof rescued them. Another woman lost her daughter but not her granddaughter, and was worried about how she would take care of her. She told me she felt like the most miserable person there. Then she saw the picture I took of her and noticed she was smiling. She had forgotten she could be happy. She told me, ‘I want to use this picture.’ I gave her a camera and so she and her husband and granddaughter began traveling again to places just to take pictures of themselves.”

Peterson’s explanations of the organization’s work often morph into stories of the people they photograph, and that largely illustrates the spirit of the project. Taking pictures and sharing them with victims breaks the ice and what follows is exchange and the fostering of new relationships. Photographs create an opportunity for conversation. And providing cameras to families that lost theirs is one way of enabling them again.

“We have three main goals,” says Peterson, “Help people through photos. Encourage others to go to Tohoku in an effort to help them rebuild their lives. And support local businesses by spending money there.”

Peterson’s goal for 2013 is to take buses of photographers to Tohoku twice a month, instead of his current once a month, and to focus on small towns along the coast that have largely been forgotten by media. He also wants to encourage other teams to take independent Photohoku trips. But how receptive are tsunami victims in temporary housing units to teams of photographers arriving to take their photographs? Admittedly, Peterson says, people aren’t always sure what to make of them. Are they just more media teams coming to take pictures of their misery? Peterson shares another story.

“We once went to a community center in a temporary housing cluster and the people were creating wooden name plates for their houses. When I told them I would take an instant photo for them, nobody obliged us until I just took one and then had the guy peel it apart himself. Well, he lit up when he saw it. Then the people across the table wanted one, and then everyone wanted one. Then they said they wanted their kids to come to get photographed. We took this hilarious photo of a kid dumping paint all over himself and the wood block so I said we should take it back to your mom before the shot gets ruined. We did take it back to her and then we took a portrait of her. They had five kids who all gathered around and over the course of the hour we took lots of photos and made a great album for them. We met them several times on subsequent trips, then their extended family, their friends. It all spread out from them so that a whole community has portraits and albums now.”

Photohoku’s work has largely spread in this organic manner, but not without its challenges. Funding has not always been easy to come by—and still isn’t. But Peterson seems to believe that this is his life’s mission and, like the people of Tohoku, never gives up hope. Peterson has had to make significant sacrifices of his own time and money to keep Photohoku going, but the work has only just begun.
Please join us next issue as we take a closer look at how Photohoku came to be, and how it will continue to serve the people of Tohoku.










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