What is Photohoku and how (and why) did you become involved with this project?
Photohoku is a family photo-album building project for those affected by the events of March 11th. It’s a portmanteau blending of the words Photo and Tohoku. It was officially started on September 11th of 2011 by myself (Brian Scott Peterson) and our co-founder, Yuko Yoshikawa. We became involved in the project having collaborated on another Tokyo-based project called Tokyo Kids Photo.
Basically we go to the earthquake and tsunami affected areas of Tohoku, armed with instant cameras and instant film and find families who lost all their photos in the disaster and make new photos for them. We put those photos in a new family album for them and present that newly started album to the families. If the families don’t have a camera, we also give them a retired digital camera we’ve collected as donations from our friends and families. Finally, on subsequent trips, we print the photos from the cameras with have given and add those photos to the albums as well so they can continue them. Basically help them start their photographic lives over.
How did Photohoku evolve from being just an idea to becoming a full-on reality?
We basically wanted to repeat our Tokyo Kids Photo portraiture project in Tohoku by simply traveling to the affected areas to make some nice new photos for the affected families. We would have to take the photos, return to Tokyo to print them and send them back to the families, which seemed straightforward enough but then we got the idea to use instant film and instant cameras. Coincidentally we were working with Fujifilm on an unrelated project at the time, so we asked them if they would consider supporting our project with some of their instant film. We were hoping they’d supply us with a few packs of film but they ended up essentially offering us more than we could possibly shoot ourselves in an entire year, which enabled us to start taking other photographers with us.
How frequently does the Photohoku team travel to Tohoku and, on average, how many families do you photograph and make albums for on each trip?
We travel to Tohoku about once a month, twice if we are lucky, and we are willing to go more if our supporters afford us the chance. Since September of 2011, we have been 9 times and gifted well over 100 new family photo albums and given countless photos.
What was the response like from the families who have been photographed and given new photo albums and/or donated digital cameras?
The response is unanimously positive. As the situation has been understandably mined for photos, people are occasionally at first leery, however once they understand we are giving them a photo that is just for them, everybody warms up to the idea, and when they see the magic of instant film, they are thrilled to have a their photo taken and receive a new album. It’s not uncommon for the recipients to shed a tear or two, nor is it uncommon for us to share one with them. It gets pretty emotional at times.
Are there any families in particular that stood out and/or left an impression on you?
There are just too many to mention. Off the top of my head, there was the couple whose granddaughter survived her mother (their daughter). The grandparents told us how sad they were knowing they wouldn’t be able to see the granddaughter grow up, much less give her the care she needed, and was so uncertain about what the future held. The grandmother told us she cried everyday and that she was more miserable than anyone around her. When the she saw herself smiling in the photo we took of her, she told us she hadn’t expected to ever see herself smiling again. She was so happy to have our album. (YouTube video of their meeting here.)
Then there was the family who escaped from their car through a shattered back window — who managed to crawl on the roof of the car (a mother and 4 kids), to then be rescued by others from atop a roof of a home. Stories beyond belief and certainly beyond words.
So far, what has been some of your most memorable Photohoku moments?
Every experience is truly special and unforgettable. We’ve met some amazingly kind people, heard unbelievable stories of both heroism and loss. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve been invited into homes, been fed, been boozed, been sheltered, been given gifts, been bombarded by children (who know us by name), had songs sung to us, even asked for autographs. Every moment stands out as being THE moment of the project. In all of this, we have learned that even if we take a team of 6 people, it’s freezing cold, and we have few opportunities to connect, that even reaching just one family can have an impact on them for the rest of their lives, maybe even after their gone. In that, it’s fully worthwhile and unforgettable every time.
A question from our camera おたくs living here: What kind of equipment do you use for your Photohoku trips?
Basically we use any cameras that take instant film. Some of the cameras have included the Konica Instant Press, the Polaroid 195, the Mamiya Universal Press, a Linhof Master Technika, among others.
One fun camera we have is a homemade 3D (Stereoscopic) instant camera made from two Fuji Cheki cameras which takes two instant photos at the same time which when looked at through a special 3D viewer, which we make with the kids during a workshop, becomes a completely other experience in itself.
Looking forward, what do you want to see happen with Photohoku?
To be frank, we want to see Photohoku blow up. Our ambitious pipe-dream goal is to give every single last family in Japan who lost their photos in the earthquake and tsunami a start on a new album if they want one. To do that, it may take years, it may take a lifetime. But this is what we know how to do and we intend to continue is as best as we can for as long as we can. For the time being, we will keep going to Tohoku once a month and reaching out to as many families as we can.
For those of us living in Canada and other parts of the world, what are some ways that we can help/contribute to Photohoku?
Please consider helping by making a donation though out website. Our main expense is getting there and back. Any donation you consider making will likely be put towards getting a photographer and an assistant from Tokyo to a temporary housing area in the affected areas of Tohoku where they can use their talent to realize our goals which can be distilled down to giving the lasting smile of a photograph.
If you can’t make a financial contribution, please consider sending a retired digital camera to us so we can find it a new home in Tohoku.
If you can’t do either of those, please share about Photohoku with your family and friends. Eventually, it will find itself under the right nose and we can all work together to bring smiles to those who really need them most.
Last question: What makes you smile?
We’re photographers. Smiles make us smile, naturally. SAY CHEESE!