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  • February 10, 2016

Life Happened Here: Tsunami Survivors Revisit Ruined Sites

Author
Jeremy Berlin

Five years ago a massive earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan. The tsunami it unleashed destroyed large swaths of the island nation, killing nearly 16,000 people, causing $200 billion in damages, and roiling the lives of those who survived.

One of the hardest hit places was Otsuchi, a small fishing community on the northeastern edge of Hon­shu, Japan’s largest island. When the floodwaters receded, its population had been decimated and displaced.

In Otsuchi, Japan, family members sit in what’s left of their home—one of many residential buildings razed by an earthquake-born tsunami in 2011.
In Otsuchi, Japan, family members sit in what’s left of their home—one of many residential buildings razed by an earthquake-born tsunami in 2011.

Alejandro Chaskielberg arrived in Otsuchi in October 2012. The Argen­tine photographer had heard about the town from a friend with relatives there, and he hoped to document the devastation. That included “moun­tains of debris” dotted with red flags where bodies had been discovered.

“I decided to photograph in black and white,” he says, “because I thought, This is extremely sad. Other than the flags, there are no colors left here.” But when he found a waterlogged family photo album lying in the street, he was startled to see the colors that had smudged and blended together. Those saturated hues, he thought, were colors creat­ed by the tsunami.

A recovered family—so waterlogged it weighed over 20 pounds— provided the color palette for Chaskielberg’s postproduction photo tinting.
A recovered family photo album—so waterlogged it weighed over 20 pounds—provided the color palette for Chaskielberg’s postproduction photo tinting.
These five images were some of the hundreds that Chaskielberg and an aid group found in the debris.
These five images were among the hundreds found in the debris by Chaskielberg and an aid group.

With that palette in mind, Chaskielberg began to turn tragedy into tableau. He asked residents to pose at night, silent and motionless, in the ruins of their old homes or workplaces. Many were wary at first. But after he staged a photography workshop for local students and brought his four­-month-­old daugh­ter to Otsuchi, he began to win their trust. His project eventually became part of the town’s rebuilding process.

Yoshiko Ohta stands in the doorway of a home provided by the government after the 2011 disaster. Thousands of Otsuchi’s residents—an estimated 30 percent of the population—are still lodged in temporary housing.
Yoshiko Ohta stands in the doorway of a home provided by the government after the 2011 disaster. Thousands of Otsuchi’s residents—an estimated 30 percent of the population—are still lodged in temporary housing.

Chaskielberg illuminated his subjects with moonlight, streetlights, and flashlights, then used long expo­sures to make the black-­and-­white photographs. Later, after scanning the negatives, he tinted the images in his digital darkroom to match the vivid colors of the photo album.

A section of a tiled bathroom is all that remains of a house in Otsuchi. Beyond it is the rebuilt city hall. News reports say that four out of five structures in town were destroyed, including the fire department, police station, and main hospital.
A section of a tiled bathroom is all that remains of a house in Otsuchi. Beyond it is the rebuilt city hall. News reports say that four out of five structures in town were destroyed, including the fire department, police station, and main hospital.
Former Otsuchi Town Library employee Haruko Okano sits in the spot where the library once stood. Reconstruction isn’t proceeding as quickly as residents would like. Although the central government is funding recovery work, the post-tsunami rebuilding boom has yielded a shortage of contractors.
Former Otsuchi Town Library employee Haruko Okano sits in the spot where the library once stood. Reconstruction isn’t proceeding as quickly as residents would like. Although the central government is funding recovery work, the post-tsunami rebuilding boom has yielded a shortage of contractors.

The results, he says, are solemn and intimate—meditative “attempts to recover memories and bridge the past and the present. Family photo­graphs are part of our memories, part of our identities. These people lost all that in the tsunami. So this was a way to help them create new memories.”

Sitting on the dock of Otsuchi Bay, members of a local preservation society wear tiger costumes—part of a traditional dance performed here each year as a prayer for a good fishing season. When the tsunami struck in 2011, water swept over a 21-foot-high seawall, washing away one bridge and damaging another. Many residents lost their livelihood to the waves. Today Otsuchi is starting to recover, but reconstruction won’t be complete for several more years.
Sitting on the dock of Otsuchi Bay, members of a local preservation society wear tiger costumes—part of a traditional dance performed here each year as a prayer for a good fishing season. When the tsunami struck in 2011, water swept over a 21-foot-high seawall, washing away one bridge and damaging another. Many residents lost their livelihood to the waves. Today Otsuchi is starting to recover, but reconstruction won’t be complete for several more years.
One of the many buildings Otsuchi lost was the Koganji Temple—an emergency assembly point before the tsunami obliterated it, killing some of the people who’d gathered there. Three years after losing his father and son in the disaster, a monk named Ryokan Ohgayuu stands next to a new bell at the site.
One of the many buildings Otsuchi lost was the Koganji Temple—an emergency assembly point before the tsunami obliterated it, killing some of the people who’d gathered there. Three years after losing his father and son in the disaster, a monk named Ryokan Ohgayuu stands next to a new bell at the site.

It’s an approach, he adds, that’s as portable as it is helpful. “I want to show how we can use photography to rebuild our lives,” he says. “Not just with this atrocity, but every time an atrocity like this happens.”

Life goes on: The members of a junior baseball team pose for a picture after practice. Rebuilding is only part of the healing process for the residents of Otsuchi; resuming pre-disaster activities like baseball is also a key step.
Life goes on: The members of a junior baseball team pose for a picture after practice. Rebuilding is only part of the healing process for the residents of Otsuchi; resuming pre-disaster activities like baseball is also a key step.
Three years after the disaster, five surfers at Kirikiri Beach—(from left) Satoshi Tsuchiza- wa, Kei Sugimoto, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yuya Miura, and Rieko Sugimoto—stand near a protective barrier that was ravaged by the tsunami. To create these intimate nocturnal portraits, Chaskielberg asked locals to pose where they used to live, work, or play. ''I wanted to set up a spiritual moment for them,'' he says. ''It was something I could feel, taking these pictures.''
Three years after the disaster, five surfers at Kirikiri Beach—(from left) Satoshi Tsuchizawa, Kei Sugimoto, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yuya Miura, and Rieko Sugimoto—stand near a protective barrier that was ravaged by the tsunami. To create these intimate nocturnal portraits, Chaskielberg asked locals to pose where they used to live, work, or play. “I wanted to set up a spiritual moment for them,” he says. “It was something I could feel, taking these pictures.”
Still standing on a small island in Otsuchi Bay, the Benten Shrine somehow survived the deluge. Chaskielberg shot the inspiring sight at night because he ''wanted to tell the story of Otsuchi in an intimate way—and show how photography can help us build new memories for the future.''
Still standing on a small island in Otsuchi Bay, the Benten Shrine somehow survived the deluge. Chaskielberg shot the inspiring sight at night because he “wanted to tell the story of Otsuchi in an intimate way—and show how photography can help us build new memories for the future.”

View more of Alejandro Chaskielberg’s work from this project, called “Ostuchi Future Memories,” on his website.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. ilyas
    March 21, 2016

    Nature disaster , human still work for it

  2. “R” Addison
    March 14, 2016

    Portraying stark remnants enlists a spiritual awakening… altho Radionuclides could not be seen… thus a photo of ‘sunflowers’ remediating should have been… planted to bio-Accumulate the radionuclides– remains remiss to the phytoremediations record of the Buddhists attempts!

  3. iglooo101
    March 9, 2016

    Very brave people.

  4. McBucketz
    March 7, 2016

    touching yet sad.

  5. Jon
    February 29, 2016

    breathtaking and haunting.

  6. super_bruh
    February 29, 2016

    school gives us soo much homework

  7. sanikgaming
    February 29, 2016

    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 mlg pro.

  8. sanikgaming
    February 29, 2016

    this is so much helpful info for my article for class. 🙂

  9. Kenneth
    February 28, 2016

    These photos show why we as a human race must help each other.When Hurricane Fran hit North Carolina, I received help from people from foreign countries. I was so shocked to see handwriting,blankets, and letters of support. I very touched and it has guided me to be more humane and caring, also less prone to be racist and only concerned with what only happens in America.

  10. Bill R
    February 19, 2016

    Heartrendering. This is so sad. Great photographs both just taken and just found

  11. Yuri
    February 16, 2016

    Very emotional, deeply saturated with love and compassion. I will show this work to my students as a good example of technical and aesthetic height.

  12. Harold F Cole
    February 16, 2016

    Out of the devastation,these photos so brilliantly portray a proud people confronting life in the aftermath of tragedy,that will forever stay with them.The expressions reach out to you,and in that, one can feel the sense of loss.Awesome photos that tell a story.May the human spirit prevail.

  13. Nam Lee
    February 14, 2016

    Earmarked a new history of what photography can achieve as fine art for humanity. You are hailed high ever!

  14. Duane
    February 14, 2016

    Heartfelt. Very moving. Thank you

  15. Aleema Curri
    February 14, 2016

    La obra de Alejandro Chaskielberg transmite compromiso con el ser humano y su memoria.
    es una mirada artisticamente curiosa y jugada, mas alla de lo convencional .gracias.

  16. STS
    February 14, 2016

    Reminded me of the vivid images in the opening credits for the Treme series. Waterlogged Ninth Ward photo albums. Waterlogged Otsuchi album. And people still waiting for the help that was promised.

  17. Lisa Tschritter
    February 14, 2016

    Your photographs honor a honorable society and gives those who suffered that tremendous loss, hope. Sharing those photos with the rest of us teaches humility. Thank you for your gifts.

  18. Frederick Lukoff
    February 14, 2016

    Truly beautiful and moving works–a complete answer to the question whether photography is fine art.

  19. Erin
    February 14, 2016

    A stunning, vivid, heartwrenching way to help those of us remember how lucky we are on a day built around our hearts and those we love. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Lisa Dietz
    February 14, 2016

    Alejandro Chaskielberg’s photograph of the family photo album is artistically inspirational! It has made me look at my own work differently. It is a powerful, haunting and still beautiful way to express his experience of this traumatic event! Poignant and bitter, overwhelmed yet mindful – wonderful work.

  21. Maarten Das
    February 14, 2016

    The picture of the family in the remains of their house is haunting and stunning. I admire what you have done with these photographs.

  22. Scott McCasland
    February 13, 2016

    Interestingly, the color palette reminded me of the very earliest National Geographic offerings from nearly a century ago.

  23. Gwen
    February 13, 2016

    I froze when I saw the image of the photo album. This is something to which everyone can relate, but not to the associated cataclysm. The subsequent photographs were mesmerizing, gripping my heart and mind. Thank you for this experience.

  24. Ols
    February 10, 2016

    Alejandro Chaskielberg’s photograph of the waterlogged family photo album is one the most hauntingly beautiful photographs I have ever seen.

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