Yuichi Itabashi, a chemical engineer by training, was watching the horrors of the tsunami zone safely from his house in Tokyo. But what he saw made him realise he could help. “A few weeks after the tsunami, there was a television news report that showed some people in the tsunami area trying to clean their photos. I saw they were washing them roughly,” he says with a shudder.
At the time, Yuichi worked for Fujifilm, one of Japan’s oldest camera companies. He was in charge of their photo imaging division — the part of the company that had made a lot of the photographic paper he was watching survivors clean on TV. “Someone said they were gathering the photos in every town. I thought we needed to go there. Though, to be honest, we didn’t really know how to clean photos either,” he admits. But he did know that those people were in danger of destroying the things they were trying to protect. He worked with his colleagues to recreate tsunami conditions over a couple of days, applying seawater and mud to photos to mimic the damage. Then, they figured out how to make the photos whole again. They had to work quickly. Calls were coming in to Fujifilm from up and down the coast asking how to save photographs.
For decades, Japan has nurtured its love affair with photography. “Since the 1960s, every family has had a camera,“ says photo conservationist Yoko Shiraiwa. “So every family probably had photograph albums in their houses.”
Now, of course, photographs are usually taking on digital cameras and often instantly saved into cloud storage. But there’s an enduring power to photographic prints, to photos that take up physical space. In the tsunami, Yoko says, everything that was stored on hard disk drives, memory sticks and CDs was lost.
In normal times, Yoko works for museums and private collectors, trying to extend the lives of priceless historical objects. Right after the disaster, she watched the same news reports as Yuichi which showed survivors who were cleaning muddy photographs. She too understood that there was only a small amount of time before the wet photos would disintegrate. Discarding the complicated methods she normally uses to clean photos, she also developed a simple cleaning method using water and raced to the tsunami zone to pitch in. Every town along the coast appeared to have the same idea: when there were no more bodies to pull from the wreckage, they pulled photos. Volunteers called themselves the Memory Hunters.
As the communication lines were re-established, volunteers across the region realised they had all become Memory Hunters. They were bound together by the same comforting activity. “Rescuing photos, washing them, or trying to find their owners, all these activities united people,” Yoko says. At that point, Japan’s traditional appreciation for photos combined neatly with a culture that places a special importance on returning objects to their rightful owners. In Tokyo, for example, the police say that 80% of lost mobile phones are returned and more than 60% of wallets — often within the same day. At first, it was thought that the photos were being saved so that those who were missing after the tsunami could reclaim them. But as the death toll grew, and it became clear that those who were missing probably wouldn’t return, the project became a way for those left behind to hold onto the memories of those who were gone. Volunteers formed surprisingly efficient assembly lines – painstakingly cleaning the waterlogged, mud-caked photos, and pegging them up to dry inside small tents.
Yuichi urged Fujifilm to make simple advertisements that would reach people across the tsunami zone, explaining that photos could be saved if they were washed in the right way. Other companies pitched in too, as corporations tried to find ways they might be able to help. A national effort was born.https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/uoo2d6sp5o/japan-photos-tsunami