Festival of Friendship and Fortitude: Photohoku Brings Emotional Relief to Fukushima Prefecture


A 50-meter-long nagashi sōmen stand was one of the many attractions at the festival. (© Miseon Park)

It is perfect weather for a matsuri, and the air in the small coastal town of Shinchi, Fukushima, is abuzz with the hubbub of children frolicking and old folks gossiping. School dance teams and other performers entertain the crowds from a modest stage, and refreshment stalls offering local produce do a brisk trade as punters bustle to have their photo taken, cool off in paddling pools, snap up noodles hurtling along the chute of a 50-meter nagashi sōmen stand, or take part in the numerous other activities on offer.

But look a little more closely, and you see that this park is dotted with radiation meters. Some of the young families queueing up to have their pictures made into instant photo albums are conspicuous for the absence of a parent. And most of those present made the trip not from their own homes, but from one of several large temporary housing units close to the site.

Facing Disaster with Festivity

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, this small, thriving fishing community fell victim to the terrifying power of the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. Over a hundred local residents lost their lives that day, and thousands were displaced as large swaths of the settlement were wiped off the map. Ordinarily, the complete destruction of a town of over 8,000 people would make for major news, but caught amid the panic and chaos of countless other towns along Japan’s Pacific coastline that met a similar fate, the name of Shinchi largely fell through the cracks in the media scramble and has since been almost entirely forgotten.

But the people of Shinchi are made of stern stuff. In the summer of 2011, just months after the earthquake and tsunami, the town trade association decided to put together a matsuri. In previous summers, the local council had organized a festival on the bay known as Yūkai Shinchi (a play on words using 遊海, the characters for “play” and “ocean,” to evoke the similar word yukai (愉快), which means “cheerful”). Despite the devastation, the locals saw no reason for the town to miss out on its annual dose of fun.

Shinchi in 1997 (left) and in August 2014, over three years after most of the town was swept away by the March 11 tsunami. (© Shinchi Town [left], Saiki Katsumi)

This was the beginning of the Yaru shika nē be matsuri (in the strongly accented local Japanese, the “Nothing For It But to Do It Festival”), which returned some cheer and positivity to the lives of the townspeople—many of whom were at the time still living in emergency shelters—as well as provided a fillip to local businesses. The event, which was held away from a waterfront now deemed unsafe due to radioactive material spilling out from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, proved a roaring success and was repeated in following years.

On-the-Fly Philanthropy

Also in mid-2011, in the months following the earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo-based photographers Brian Peterson and Yoshikawa Yūko took part in volunteer and fundraising activities to help the relief effort in Japan’s worst-affected areas. They had misgivings about the way in which money gathered through conventional means could take an age to trickle down to the people who needed it most. Unable to muster serious funds, they decided to use something they did have in abundance—an extensive knowledge of cameras and an eye for the perfect shot. That September, Peterson and Yoshikawa headed north with two comrades. They went to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the worst-hit towns in Tohoku, and began taking pictures. With their proposed activity and the name of their destination, the project named itself: Photohoku.

They realized that instant photography was a perfect way to help families rebuild treasured photo collections washed away by the tsunami. They used their impressive personal collection of instant cameras, along with a stockpile of film that had been sitting in Peterson’s fridge, waiting for just the right opportunity. But freshly taken instant pictures can be sticky and easily damaged. Just hours before their scheduled trip, they purchased photo albums that would let families assemble a new set of memories from a blank slate, putting some distance between themselves and the horrors of March 11.

Volunteer photographers help residents from the tsunami-hit town create new family albums. (© David McMahon [left], Sakaguchi Ken)

With a hefty stack of albums and only limited film, though, they realized how lonely these gifts would be with the handful of shots that could be offered to each family. The next step: equipping them to continue the albums themselves by giving them cameras. The Photohoku team sent out a tweet asking anyone with a no-longer-wanted camera to bring it to Shibuya. Following a warm response, Peterson and Yoshikawa set off only a couple of hours later with four digital cameras to pass on to whomever they might meet on their trip.

The team helped start multiple albums on that first foray to Ishinomaki and quickly followed up with another two trips north in the first month, in the process cementing the concepts behind Photohoku, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that is made possible by crowdfunding and donations, and—when money is not available—by whatever items or practical assistance that supportive individuals and organizations offer.

Guiding Principles

One key Photohoku tenet is that photographs—especially where survivors might be suffering from photo fatigue, suspicious of journalists looking to mine them for their stories—are something to be given rather than taken. Another is that the creation of a new album can be a way to draw a line under the past and look forward with optimism. A third is to encourage self-sufficiency, enabling families to use the step-by-step assembly of their albums as a parallel for the independent rebuilding of their lives. The bond with the Photohoku team does not end with the handover of the initial pictures, though—the aim is to stay in contact, watch the progress, and relive the jointly forged memories through social media and repeat visits.

Photohoku founders Brian Peterson (right) and Yoshikawa Yūko (center) aboard the night bus to Shinchi with long-term collaborator Hoshino Hiroaki. (© Saiki Katsumi)

Photohoku has racked up 33 trips to the northeast coast of Japan, helping to start 500 albums in the process and handing out over 10,000 photographs in total, calling upon an ever-expanding, multinational cast of volunteers. It has also expanded its remit to go to the aid of disaster-hit areas abroad. These include the Photoklahoma action, in which Peterson, his air fare waived by Delta Airlines, flew to the United States and enlisted locally based volunteer photographers to help start around 100 albums in Oklahoma after the state was ravaged by a series of tornadoes in May 2013. The Photosayas project also used the same methods to bring relief to survivors on the typhoon-hit Philippine islands of Visayas, starting albums for some 30 families.

The hope for the future is that people all over the world will take inspiration from the Photohoku model and use the power of photography to give hope in disaster-stricken or war-torn areas. “We want to take the idea open source,” says Peterson. “Photohoku doesn’t have to be in Japan—it can happen anywhere, and we want to see people use the name and realize the potential of this project overseas.” He hopes that those wishing to initiate such activities abroad will contact the Photohoku organizers to benefit from their expertise, and that the founders will in turn benefit from the new connections and fresh approaches born of bringing Photohoku to new territories and situations.

An Abiding Bond

Touchy interacts with local children at the matsuri. (© Miseon Park)

Photohoku’s first trip to Shinchi came in February 2012, and the team returned for the second Yaru shika nē be matsuri in the August of that year. The friendships that blossomed meant that in 2013, and again on August 2 this year, Photohoku set up tents and offered a range of photographic options, from free family album shoots with studio-quality lighting to instant stereoscopic 3-D pictures. The 30-member group this time included over a dozen nationalities, along with children’s entertainer Mr. Magicio and conceptual artist Touchy, whose skin-contact-triggered camera headset aims to “heal social anxiety by creating joyful interactions.”

The response of the people of Shinchi was tremendous. Many had received photographs and albums on prior occasions and eagerly lined up for the chance to get some new additions. Many were pleased to see outsiders making a rare visit to the area and keen to extoll the virtues of the delicious local produce: strawberries, cucumbers, figs, and peaches. It was also a fantastic chance for the children of the area to communicate with visitors from all over the world. Allison Kwesell, an American photojournalist and Photohoku member who has lived in Shinchi and documented life in the town, stresses how important it is for the area’s economy and the development of the local children that the stigma attached to the word “Fukushima” is dispelled. Along with the fun, friendship, and mutual fulfillment, this is another reason the team intends to keep returning . . . as well of course as another all-important F: the fig ice cream.

(With thanks to the people of Shinchi and especially the Ōsuka family. Banner photo: the Photohoku 33 team at the Yaru shika nē be matsuri in Shinchi.)

Tōhoku Fukushima photography volunteer family festival