Healing power of photography

March 2, 2012

By Yuriko Nakao

The 3.11 Portrait Project brings smiles to the victims of the triple-whammy disaster through the power of the photograph

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan in March 11 last year, as a photographer for a newswire service, I had many chances to document reality, which was often depressing and shocking. However, at times, I would feel rewarded when my work brought positive results by inviting support and compassion from around the world to those who were suffering. However, still, the support was often not directed specifically to the person pictured in my shots, which often made me feel helpless.

Japanese photographer Nobuyuki Kobayashi, 42, had experienced a similar feeling. His main field of photography was mostly to shoot commercial photos but past assignments included regions in conflict, and disasters such as the earthquake which hit off the coast of Sumatra, the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the attacks on 9/11. As what many Japanese photographers did after Japan experienced the worst catastrophe since World War Two, Kobayashi went up north to take photographs after his friend in Iwate prefecture asked him to. He shot pictures of the disaster and rubble in northeastern Japan, but came to question whether that was the role he should play.

His conclusion was no.

“People were striving to move forward despite their difficulty and I hoped by photographing their portrait, it would offer them courage and hope, and possibly give them momentum to take a positive step forward towards the future,” Kobayashi said.

“I met people who had lost their albums and thought maybe I can help them create a new start for them by creating new memories,“ he added.

Soon many photographers from different fields, along with hair and makeup artists, local non-profit organizations, and anyone who wanted to help got together, and their 3.11 Portrait Project was formed. It officially kicked off three months after the disaster.

When I learned about this project from a friend, I was moved by the fact that his project utilized the power of photographs to help the disaster victims and that maybe I could play a part in bringing about something positive through documenting their efforts.

I decided to cover the whole process which was divided into three parts, in a time span of two months.
In late December, 2011, I joined the first part, which was to actually take the portrait photos of the earthquake and tsunami victims.

Kobayashi and his members gathered in the common area of the Midorigaoka temporary housing area in Koriyama, Fukushima where people who had evacuated from Fukushima’s Tomioka town were living. Most of them have lived within a 10-km radius of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The photographers quickly set up an in-house photo studio, with lighting stands, diffusers, and white backdrops. The hair and makeup artists, who normally work on models for fashion magazines, set up their professional kits including hair-curlers, dryers, and makeup sets.

The residents gathered and after signing up, the women had their hair curled and their make-up done by the volunteers, as the men waited.

I could see the women’s faces brighten up as they saw their different look in the mirror.

Katsuko Abe, 71, carrying her dog, “Kaede,” was among the many people who had come out of their houses to have their portrait taken.

When it was her turn, she stood in front of a white backdrop and posed, starting off with a stiff smile. The photographers and the makeup artists told her how she was looking good and how cute the dog was posing with her, and gradually she seemed to laugh from the bottom of her heart.

“We take pictures of these people against a common white backdrop, because I think it allows the person to stand out and helps the person being photographed to reset their past, at least for just the brief moment when they’re being photographed,” Kobayashi said.

“I hope by offering an extraordinary experience and creating a happy mood when we photograph, we can offer some courage to move forward”, he said as he chose words carefully since he knows how difficult it is for the victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents to overcome their despair and difficulties.
Another couple in their 70’s was suggested by Kenichi Funada, a professional photographer who is one of the core members of the 3.11 Portrait Project.

The wife covered her face as her husband put his arms around her stiffly.

After the photo session, the wife said “I haven’t touched his hands for ages,” as her husband also blushed.

They chose which photograph they liked as the photographer showed the files on Funada’s i-Pad.

Since the photographs were shot in digital SLR camera, it was possible to print them out and give them on the spot. However that was not the point of their project.

The 3.11 Portrait Project’s other mission was to create new bonds with the people being photographed and with the younger generation that will support the future of these people.

The second leg of coverage was held nearly two months after the photo shoot.

Kobayashi brought the printed photographs along with frames and letterset to the sixth graders of a private school called Keimei Gakuen in Akishima, near Tokyo. After explaining the meaning of his project to the students, he distributed a frame and a photo to everyone randomly.

The students carefully put the photographs of the Tomioka town in the frame and wrote a letter in hopes of cheering them up.

“I think your smile is very nice. I assume you have gone through hardships but the fact you are smiling is very admirable,” wrote one student in a letter.

After two weeks, Kobayashi and his fellow members revisited the Midorigaoka temporary shelter, with the framed photographs and the letters written by the students, as the finale of their three-step effort.

The residents from Tomioka town, mostly ranging between 60 to 90 years old, gathered in the common area, all looking forward to receiving their photographs and the letters written by a youngster they didn’t know.
“I have been looking forward to this day for the past two months,” Tsugiko Miyajima, 77, said. Miyajima, who lives by herself in a shelter where the insulation is insufficient through an especially cold northern Japanese winter. I could see that she looked as if she had lost energy compared to when I saw her on my last visit. But her eyes twinkled as she united with the 3.11 Portrait Project members.

Kobayashi says, this three-step process takes time, but I think this waiting time is important, since it gives them an opportunity for them to look forward to something.

Today, the project has grown to a team of 50 volunteers, and so far has visited 33 temporary houses and evacuation centers. Over 2,200 youngsters have written letters, which meant 2200 new bonds have also been created, according to Kobayashi.

After Katsuko Abe, who posed with her dog, “Kaede”, received her photograph and letter, she looked at the photograph smiling happily. Soon, she was weeping with happiness.

“In my daily life there is no chance for me to smile, I just talk with Kaede all day. However the other day, I remember that the volunteers were cheering at me, and it was truly fun.“

Abe, who had to move to six different places since the disaster, said, “This photograph means a lot to me, it proves that I am able to smile even after I had gone through the hardships.”

“I will cherish this forever,” she said as kept the framed picture inside a plastic cover.

“I want to protect this photograph from dust, it’s my treasure.”


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Thanks for sharing the story Yuriko, it brought tears to my eyes.

Posted by kuri | Report as abusive

This is an amazing project to connect the survivors with the people. it shows fraternity and gives the young kids the humanitarian sensibility towards other people.
my congratulations to the photographer.

Posted by Monalisa_chat | Report as abusive

Brilliant and absolutely beautiful.

Posted by weemoose | Report as abusive

Giving the victims a face is a most clever performance… maybe you can help me with my own. I would like to ask Masafumi Nagasaki, the hermit of Sotobanari island, for a photo wearing the Namazu-e-shirt (I won’t post any links here, but Google finds the term in no time). Like I know your colleague Ruairidh Villar was on location and could maybe help me to find the address of the shop where Nagasaki-san buys his goods so I can send him a shirt and a letter. Would you mind if I ask you to ask him for a little help? My email is in the Namazu-e-shirt blog. Thank you very much.

Posted by niccramer | Report as abusive