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Life Happened Here: Tsunami Survivors Revisit Ruined Sites

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On his first trip to Otsuchi, photographer Alejandro Chaskielberg asked Koichi Miura (second from left), Takanobu Sasa (second from right), and their relatives to pose in the town’s ruined port, where they used to dry and package fish.

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.

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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.

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A recovered family photo album—so waterlogged it weighed over 20 pounds—provided the color palette for Chaskielberg’s postproduction photo tinting.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.”

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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.
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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.”

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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.
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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.”
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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.

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