Three years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, a freelance photographer has restored around 750,000 photographs and brought back happiness to people who thought they had lost their memories forever. 33-year-old Munemasa Takahashi believes that “regaining their photos is regaining their past.”
Just like many people in Japan and all over the world, Takahashi thought about helping build houses in the aftermath of the disasters. But eventually, he realized that his special skills as a photographer could be of use for other purposes as well, particularly in helping the victims “reunite” with their pictures that were “rescued” by Self Defense Forces in their clean-up missions. Most of the photos he restored were from Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest hit regions. Wet photographs are very difficult to fix, as you need to be extremely careful lest you damage it even more. He soaks them in water and then uses a brush to gently remove the mud. He also takes digital photos of the actual pictures and uploads them to a database so that the owners can easily search for them. Almost half of the 750,000 photos he has restored have still not been claimed.
It hasn’t been a solo project, as his friends and acquaintances have donated cameras and tripods to help him in this massive undertaking. Volunteers have also donated their time to help out, and Takahashi has taught them the techniques on how to properly digitize and store the pictures. In an exhibit called the Lost & Found Project, he has displayed some of the photos in seven cities and four different countries. Those who attended the exhibit often wept after seeing the photos, as it is a reminder of the suffering the people had to endure during the disasters.
Takahashi has also published a book in February of this year, entitled “Tsunami, Photographs, and Then.” The book, written in both Japanese and English, talks about how to properly restore photos that have been water damaged. He will be donating the royalties he will receive from the book to the town of Yamamoto.