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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Emotional Day by Erica Hill

My All Hand's friend, Erica Hill is a way better blogger than I am, both in quantity and quality. She wrote the amazing post below, and with her permission said I could repost on my blog. To read more of her amazing writing about All Hands check out

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.yy 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 name of 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.


  1. This story brought tears to my eyes. I can't ever imagine losing Harrison and then losing every photo we had to remember him. Thank you for sharing and even more, thank you for what you are doing for these families.

  2. terrriiiiiiiii. what an amazing story! you and All Hand's volunteers are a-m-a-z-i-n-g!


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