It is a simple, yet a strikingly powerful image: a woman looks at family photographs found in the rubble of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The photographs have been meticulously cleaned and left to dry on clothing pegs in a school gymnasium in the town of Natori, Miyagi prefecture. Survivors are given the opportunity to look at the photographs on display in the hope of identifying friends and family members. In some cases, the photograph will be the only thing that is left behind.
Another photograph by the Russian press photographer Sergey Ponomarev depicts the sheer scale of the collection of photographs, and, by extension, the sheer scale of the disaster. A man is looking at an old family album, so enthralled in the images that he appears to be unaware of the very camera depicting him in the process of looking. In the background, several people can be seen doing exactly the same, sometimes in groups or as individual, trying to come to terms with the images laid out in front of them.
Ponomarev’s photographs are indicative of the complex and troubled relationship between photography and death. In his classic book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes sought to overcome the death of his mother as he analyzes, over and over again, a photograph of her. In one of his most famous quotes, he writes ‘death is the eidos of photography’. In other words, photography operates on the idea that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. It is this tragic and perverse dichotomy between an inanimate and dead object (the photograph) and the sense of a person liveliness in a photograph – a liveliness particularly apparent in family photographs.
Apart from referring to an universally applicable attribute of photography, the hope to find photographs from deceased friends and family members in the school gymnasium of Natori also displays a culturally specific phenomenon. Similar to other Asian cultures such as China and Korea, funerals are usually accompanied by a formal portrait with black rope on the top corners of the image. These photographs of the deceased constitute a crucial aspect in the process of mourning: they are later displayed on or above small Bhuddist shrines (butsudan) kept in most traditional Japanese households. In the school gymnasium of Natori, the survivors’ search for a photograph of family and friends is partially motivated by a spiritual process that subscribes great value to the photographic likeliness of a person.
In contrast to the sterile and composed black and white portraits associated with the funeral procession and the butsudan, the photographs on display in the school gymnasium represent moments of vivacity and liveliness – moments traditionally perceived as worthy of photographic representation. An image by Hong Kong born photographer Vincent Yu can be read as a collage representing significant life stages: amongst several photographs of new-born babies, there are photographs of weddings, sports days, school groups and holidays. In sum, they are the kind of photographs that represent a lived experience, that situate the subject within a community, that communicate what it means to be human.
As the family photographs in the school gymnasium continue to dry on clothing pegs, those who survived are coming to terms with the discrepancy between the tragic loss of human life and the happiness encountered in the image. The press photographs depicting family photographs are thus deeply self-referential: they are photographs about the very materiality of photography, the collective memories produced by photographs and the photograph, perhaps, constituting a source of comfort.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.