When the call came for help with photo recovery, a lot of different thoughts chased each other in my mind.
“BECCI! WYNNE! TREE! YUMI!”
“The family whose daughter was lost…”
“I hope it’s warmer than it was in Rikuzentakata!”
“So glad I got to participate!”
These are just a glimpse (and only a few examples) of what memories and images I summoned. My lovely friend Becci had been contacted by a lady named Ann. Ann had read about the Photo Rescue Japan project, and was hoping that someone could come to upstate New York to show the residents there how to care for their flood-damaged photographs. Last fall, flood waters devastated the area. Recovery is ongoing, but in the meantime, precious memories locked away in pictures were slowly disintegrating. Would Becci or someone be able to help?
Becci put the call out and it was answered. After a lot of emails, facebook messages, and creative arrangement, it was settled. I was headed to New York for the weekend.
It was a flight with a layover in Washington DC, but the reward for an out-of-the-way stop was getting to see the Space Shuttle Discovery with its transport airplane! It was dark (so no photos without a flash came out well), and as anyone who’s tried to take photos with a flash camera from INSIDE a plane window might guess, none of my flash photos turned out. But it was a majestic sight, and one I hope to remember.
I arrived as the last of the party. Becci, Emiko, and Mara were scheduled to pick me up from Binghamton airport. My childish exuberance about seeing friends was instantly subdued as I deboarded the plane. One woman’s family greeted her with terrible news about a relative dying suddenly and quite literally minutes before. There were wails of anguish, tears, and questions. It seemed like everywhere I stood or stepped, I was intruding in their grief, so I tried to sidle away unobtrusively. As I was trying to be somewhere, anywhere else, I spotted another sad sight.
It’s probably the little girl who lives stubbornly on inside of me, but I wanted to scoop that teddy up and take him with me. Such a sad and forlorn little guy! The airport was starting to have a really sad and tragic feel to it. As I sat and waited, the jarring emotions started to feel very familiar. When we worked on the photographs in Japan, emotions crashed upon us in a mad and bewildering rush with regularity. One picture would prompt laughter and giggles, while others would sober up the entire team. It was starting to feel like this was exactly where I was supposed to be, as strange as that may sound. It was just… fitting?
I didn’t have long to wait before my ride arrived. Becci hopped out of one of the largest trucks I’ve ever seen with a great big hug. Inside were Emiko and Mara, both of whom I’d not met before. Introductions were made, and we headed off to our temporary home. There, I was introduced to the loveliest people, Jennifer and Jack, and their secret alien dog, Andy. (Andy seems to stare up through the ceiling and whines at something no-one else can see. Mystifying, he is.) We said our good nights, and shuffled off to bed.
In the morning, we met Ann, who organised the weekend event. All day Saturday and Sunday, people could come to our workspace to learn how to care for their damaged photos. We had equipment set up much like we did in Rikuzentakata: tubs of cold water, exacto knives, scissors, gloves, paper towels*, and lots of clothespins and lines for drying.
We started off immediately, with people arriving even before we were entirely set up. Becci and Emiko got to work assessing damage and demonstrating cleaning techniques, while Mara and one of the local ladies, a named Pheobe, set up the scanning centre.
It wasn’t long before the images resembled our workspaces in Japan, just a little.
As the people arrived with their photos, their stories and their memories arrived with them. Sad, funny, happy, regretful, and more… It seemed like a revelation to me in Japan when I realised this, and it felt once again like a revelation in New York, to realise that we were sharing these peoples’ LIVES as we helped.
More stories and photos to come!
*Funny story about this: Becci asked for help from us to compile a list of needed materials. We recounted what we used in Japan, and she forwarded the list to Ann. Becci’s grasp of American English, and Ann’s grasp of British vernacular, resulted in Becci’s “kitchen towels” being interpreted as something else altogether. What we actually NEEDED were paper towels, and what we wound up with were dish towels (or “tea towels”, as our Brit named them). We all had a laugh about that, and it was decided that Becci needs a proofreader to assist with any future listmaking.
Today was, sadly, my last day working with Project Tohoku. I leave in an hour on the overnight bus, and I really don’t want to go.
Today’s work was again based in nearby Rikuzentakata. It was a cloudy day, with some bleak and depressing weather… but quite an eventful day in terms of the Photo Project! NHK, the national news service, came to shoot video and do interviews. Wynne was interviewed multiple times, because a local group also stopped in to see what was going on. It was a little nerve-wracking to be so cautious and meticulous with photo cleaning whilst having video cams stuck in your face! So our photo team will be featured on Japanese news; no idea when, where, or how to find it though.
Today I took a lot of photos and some video. When I get to a place with better internet connection, expect quite a deluge!
Today marked my fifth day at the Rikuzentakata Photo cleaning project, as well as my first day as team leader. Wynne, the regular team lead, needed a mental/physical break from doing photos. Terri and I volunteered to each work a day for her so she could do something different for the first time in three weeks.
Usually, photo cleaning is a 3-day commitment, since it involves training the volunteers how to safely clean photos, and the more damaged photos require some experience. Wynne usually gave the more heavily damaged albums to the longest-term volunteer there; newbies got the least damaged and therefore easiest ones.
This is significant to explain, because today I had a team comprised of newbies, with one repeater. We have been joined at Project Tohoku by a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers from Tokyo. They come down once a month, and only stay for two days. This was the situation for Terri yesterday and myself today. What this meant is that all the people working there the last two days have done only easy albums… but they did a LOT of them.
Terri started off the morning with me, sorting the albums they had cleaned yesterday. There were piles and piles of them. After we got a handle on them, Terri rejoined her group next door (who were sorting through valuables stored in a warehouse). The day before, one of our bus drivers, Sato-san, had looked at the photos and got very excited. He recognised friends of his in some of the photos the volunteers were cleaning. Terri mentioned this to me, but we both reckoned it would figure in much later down the road.
During our morning break, a car pulled up and a couple got out. They didn’t speak any English, and most of the volunteers working on photos didn’t speak much English either. They seemed to be asking where to get photos, so we were trying to explain how the Rikuzentakata community centre holds a photo library each weekend for people to look through and reclaim their pictures. The language barrier was quite frustrating, to all of us. As we were speaking, Terri and another HFH volunteer emerged from the warehouse and wandered over to us. As she got closer, Terri gasped and pointed to the man. “It’s Poser!” she told me.
“Poser” was the nickname the volunteers had given a man who appeared in almost every album they had cleaned yesterday, and a few we had cleaned this morning. She had seen his picture so many times that she recognised him. She ran into the photo room and came back out with one of the albums. She opened it and pointed to his photo, pointed to him in photos of a baseball team, and showed him. His surprise and pleasure were immediate. His wife, however, did not share his enthusiasm. She turned to the volunteer who came with Terri (the only Asian in our little cluster besides the couple) and spoke rapidly. He turned to us and asked if we had any more albums, and explained that they were Sato-san’s friends. We most definitely did. I got the ones I knew of, and brought them out. The woman reached for them with trembling hands and held them a moment before opening them. When she opened up to a photo of a little girl of about 6 flashing a peace sign, she gave a cry and held her hand over her mouth. Her eyes filled with tears, and she literally could not speak. Her husband laid a hand on her shoulder (an extremely rare gesture of emotion for Japanese people) and whispered to her. She cried there for a few moments, then turned to the HFH volunteer and slowly, gulping a lot of air, began to speak in broken sentences. His eyes widened, and he turned to us and quietly told us that the couple had lost their daughter in the tsunami, along with all their photos. They had been praying that some of their photos of her had survived, so they could have some memories of her. Not only had we found HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of them, but they were all perfect. Most photos are damaged, some badly. It’s rare to find some in excellent condition, but these were like new. They both were so overcome that they could barely say thank you.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
They returned in the afternoon to see if we had found any more of their photos (we had) and they took a look at the photos we were working on. They studied all the wet photos hanging, and looked through the finished albums. They found some photos of friends and some of theirs we hadn’t recognised as belonging to them. They were much more expressive this time, and thanked us profusely.
It was very moving, and above all, it was a reiteration that this work is important and meaningful to the people here.
Some work is satisfying in the sense that afterward, you stretch your aching muscles, look back over the job you’ve just completed, and see how much you’ve accomplished. Other jobs you can’t measure by what you can see. Yet others, it’s all about what you see…
Yesterday was such a day. One of the jobs here in Project Tohoku is a Photo Restoration/Photo Rescue. Becci and Tree work with photo retouchers all over the world to repair and restore precious photographs. The work is nothing short of amazing. But they and their contacts can only manage so much. It’s left to others to do some of the basic “rescuing” of the piles and piles of photo albums, baby books, and random pictures turned in as the communities clean up from the tsunami.
What the teams do is go through the piles, try to dry them out as much as possible, determine what is salvageable, and set about cleaning them. Different photos require different methods of cleaning, and each task has to be undertaken with the most delicate of touches, the most careful of hands.
Most of the photos I worked with were RC prints. They can be submersed in cold water to be cleaned, and so long as they are just covered in mud, it’s really easy to manage. Some of them are damaged as well, and if you remove the mud, they start to lose colours. Once the colours are gone, the damage is irreparable. It didn’t take long to see how even the barest of touches could remove everything if the photos are even slightly damaged. It’s painstaking work. We wear latex gloves, masks, and work with precision tools.
I got two albums; the first was a family album, the second a baby album. The first was more damaged. It was heartbreaking to see some of the photos lose colours and disintegrate in your hands. I think the worst of it was that the parents taking the photos had taken each others’ pictures with their children, and every photo of the mother and the son were ruined. I think I could handle seeing a few shots here and there of my own pictures, or a few of my girls, not survive, but the ones of us together? I think it would be like losing the memory itself. Thankfully, there were a lot of photos in the album, and the family has many memories they can once again relive through pictures.
The second album had been made into a sort of baby book. It chronicled a little girl from birth til about age 9 months. The photos were accompanied by little handmade captions, drawings, and postcards. Seeing how much love and time had gone into the album was moving. It drove me to take even more meticulous care than the last. The photos themselves weren’t good ones. The parents weren’t especially skilled with a camera. But the love for their little girl shone through in every shot. Even the blurred ones.
Even though we didn’t see the fruits of our labours from that day’s work, one of the drivers for All Hands, a local resident, glanced through an album we had finished. He gave an excited exclamation, and told Wynne, our project leader, that he knew someone in the photos.
The reason that’s something to note is that we had no idea whose photos we were cleaning. The albums were turned into a community centre, and they just stored them in a building. The citizens will have to come to the centre and look through them to see if they can find anything that belongs to them. Can you imagine having lost everything you own, only to find a few precious family photos, cleaned up and repaired by anonymous people from all over the world, who cared enough to take the time, never knowing if you would be able to find them or reclaim them? But as word spreads, more and more people are coming to see if they can find their treasured memories.
The lady in Rikuzentakata in charge of the photo “warehouse” came to see us yesterday. She showed Wynne pictures of the photo library they set up, where local citizens could walk through shelves of finished albums to try to find some of their own. Wynne teared up to see that what her investment has borne. It’s little things like that which make every aching muscle, every crick in the neck, every hour spent doubled over in painstaking effort worthwhile. Each of us would do it all over again, day after day.