Cleaning photos is not a very physically demanding task but each day it is an emotional experience and an important task in a very personal way. I and my fellow volunteers get to play a small part in saving something very special for people who have lost so much.
There are five parts to the photo project: Salvaging, sorting, cleaning, albums, and retouching.
Salvaged photos are still found daily in the tsunami area, they can be miles from were they were stored and found. Sometimes photos and other valuables are found on other job sites, and turned into the team leader. The hardest part is deciding what is valuable and what should be left in the rubbish piles. It because a treasure hunt / archeological dig to see what you can find.
Once found these items go to the local police who then take them to a local warehouse to be sorted and cleaned. The Rikuzentakata warehouse has been one of our responsibilities since August, but the tsunami happened in March. As one could expect the main focus of the recovery effort in the beginning was people and finding them homes. This meant that piles and piles of savaged items closed up in bags (which was a good idea at the time) stayed soaked in seawater, mud, which is the ideal conditions for all sorts of mold. So, when I walked into the warehouse the first day I was overwhelmed by smell and the amount of things that needed to be sorted and washed. For almost two months the Rikuzentakata teams has diligently worked in this mess, deciding what could be saved and what was to far damaged or unhealthy to be returned. Our guideline being would I want that back if I no longer had nothing, and if I did get it back would it make me or someone I know sick. The items us foreign volunteers deem to bad are put in a special pile, so a few locals who lived through that tragic day can make the final decision, which I am very happy to be relieved of.
This same relief is not provided though when one cleans photos. For each photo there is only one chance to get it right. Wynne tells each team member, you are like a tattoo artist with each work of art you only get one shot and its forever. There is always a bit of pressure when you receive an album to work on. Will the photo come out easily, or will the plastic peel away with most of the picture attached? Will the paper be to eaten away to even remove it from an album? Will the ink become an abstract mess and hide the memories it once held forever? Once of the album, the cleaner is not of the weeds yet. The cleaner will turn there blue latex gloves inside out with the help of blowing in them, so they are smooth instead. They they will prepare there cold water photo bath, because the water has to be cold to kill the mold on the picture. The cold water in the summer was a welcomed treat, but now in the fall with the onset of winter and no heat, but cleaners hands are now a cause of a low quiet pain. Sadly, for some of the photos when placed in the water much of the picture just wipe away. Each of us know this is mostly caused by the mold, but each time it happens it feels like a personal battle lost and a bit of guilt is felt. In these situations we hope at least the faces are preserved. In all photos the faces are the most important aspect because they help the owner of the photograph or the friends and family members identify the picture.
After the photographs are cleaned of as much mold and debris as possible, they are hanged to dry and then put in photo albums. Though many of the photographs have been badly damaged, they are made beautiful again as a collection of memories.
The albums with the clean dry photos are then driven Denshoukan to be apart of the photo library. Here the albums are be displayed in numeral order of when they arrived, so members of the community can search through them to find their missing moments. Some people are lucky to find numerous pictures on their first visits, others it takes a few trips to the library, and even more heartbreaking for others their pictures will never be seen again. It is a hard process to watch as one sifts through the hundreds of thousands of picture, it could take days even months to go through all the photos that are still being savaged and some will find nothing - I can only imagine the wave of emotion and hope one must have to go through this search. There patience and diligence keep me motivated, and when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel it is when a person recognizes a face in a single photo or better yet 7 albums when you know each step in this long tedious process is worth it.
With the cherry on the top being that each person who finds photos, can choose to have 5 photos professional retouched by photoshop experts from around the world. Becci Mason is the brain behind this part of the project which has received worldwide press and praise. Read more about restoring photos for tsunami victims go to http://www.npr.org/2011/08/19/139747453/in-japan-restoring-photos-for-tsunami-victims
As of November 6, 2011:
*Over 1oo,ooo photos have been hand cleansed
*351+ albums have been returned to there owners (this number does not include "random" photos which can be 1 to 9 photos)
*343 photos have been professionally retouched