SCAD Writing for the Arts
When I stepped off the tour bus on that July day, I could feel the salty air on my skin. We were standing on a grassy patch of land littered with concrete bricks and metal poles. Behind the bus, a traffic light blinked idly, directing cars that would never come. The ocean faintly rumbled in the distance, crashing against the seawall.
Our group, led by our translator and guide, began walking among the rubble. Hidden in the debris were small hints of life before the earthquake: a silver fork, bits of ceramic dishes, a superhero action figure. A family photograph lay in the dirt, too weatherworn and corroded to distinguish their faces.
That photograph, and countless others that shared a similar fate, may just be evidence of the tragedy that occurred during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. But those at the Memory Salvage Project believe such photographs are as much victims of the disaster as the people reflected on their warped surfaces.
After the initial cleanup of eastern Japan, hundreds of thousands of family photographs were recovered. The Memory Salvage Project took the less damaged ones and cleaned, numbered, and cataloged them in hopes that they could be returned to their owners in time. Those beyond recognition, those too damaged to restore, are now a part of Lost and Found, a travelling exhibition designed to honor the departed and the missing.
The collection of photographs floods the walls of the gallery space, collaged from the ceiling to the floor. At first glance, the photographs flow like watercolor paintings. Inklings of the past whisper from behind thousands of neatly cut plastic sleeves.
In one photograph, we see a candid shot of a woman in traditional dress, face partially obscured by the sinewy imprint of seaweed. In another, two school-aged girls stand side by side, one stripped of her smile, stolen by negative white blotches. Each photograph bears rusty stains like a scar, the same haunting color of the salt-damaged trees lining the coast I saw that summer day.
Some photographs have lost their meaning entirely. The faint outline of a navy-suited gentleman blurs against a swirl of ochre and muddled gold. A ghost of a woman stands at his side. Further along the stream of pictures, a man is posed proudly in front of a car, though the brown of his jacket is ripped from his shoulders and melded with cloudlike softness into brushed blue sky. It is an abstract mess. Colors bleed and blend like a wave, gathering in little pools here and there.
All are aptly named Untitled.
Lost and Found is a funerary experience, like viewing family photos at a wake for a person you knew only through vague relations. Underneath the oxidized smiles and liquid colors, the anonymity of the subjects is strange yet intimate. You are bonded with them, not by blood, but by that human pull of nostalgia. There are the typical shots of family portraits, school celebrations, holidays, and vacations, all events that are long past, but not forgotten. They are familiar but foreign; their meanings abstracted into salt scars and glazed textures.
These photographs could be found anywhere in the world. Only through the weight of tragedy and the pull of the tide could they transcend into art.
Looking out the window of the moving bus, I could see the ruins of the Minamisanriku Disaster Emergency Center. Its steadfast metal frame, though rusted, towered on the horizon, a reminder of the past but the promise of a resilient future. At its base stood a makeshift shrine. Colorful streamers and words of prayer in black stroked kanji swayed in the coastal breeze, a fitting memorial to what was lost and what was found.