Memory and photographs: reflections on the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster

 Fuyubi Nakamura, Institute for Art Anthropology at Tama Art University, Tokyo

Utstau Isatomae, Minamisanriku, Miyagi, June 2011
What would we look for if our hometown were swept away? Memory in material form? The tsunami—triggered by the massive earthquake that hit north-eastern Japan on 11 March last year—ruthlessly swallowed up several towns along the costal line, taking away the lives of numerous people.

Utstau Isatomae, Minamisanriku, Miyagi, July 2011
In the aftermath of the disaster, various kinds of local residents’ possessions—if they were deemed ‘valuable’—were rescued from the debris. These recovered items were often called omoide no shina or ‘objects of memory’, which included family albums, photographs and dolls among others. The items were then cleaned by volunteers and later displayed with the hope of reconnecting them with their owners, or their family or friends.

A breath of new life in Utatsu, July 2011

Cleaned items at a temporary display at the newly built Saiko-ji temple, Utatsu, August 2011
Although damaged or fragmented, images in photographic prints survived because they are material objects, whereas digital images—stored on hard disks, CDs or memory sticks—were damaged in the water (cloud computing may offer a solution to this). Because of their materiality, photographic prints became not only objects and traces of memory but also serve as relics. One year on, there are still a number of photographs to be cleaned and the search for their owners continues to this day. These rescued photographs tell us there is a future for our memory.

Photo cleaning session in Tokyo, 11 February 2012.
For details of the photo cleaning activities I was involved with, please see my recently published paper, “The Memory in the Debris” in Anthropology Today, June 2012, Vol. 28, No. 3. ( It is not by the group I was with, but the ‘Lost & Found’ project has been organizing an exhibition using rescued photos:

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