Aperture Foundation opens LOST & FOUND. 3.11 Photographs from Tohoku

Aperture Foundation presents LOST & FOUND: 3.11 Photographs from Tohoku, a profoundly moving exhibition of photographs recovered from the devastation following the two epic natural disasters and the subsequent nuclear catastrophe that took place in the Tohoku region of Japan a year ago, last March. Exhibition open April 2, 2012–Friday, April 27, 2012.

The date of this disaster has become memorialized as 3.11; a date that has taken on an equivalent significance to 9.11 in Japan—a series of events resulting in a bewildering loss of life, currently estimated at over 19,000 people, with tens of thousands more displaced from their homes. In the aftermath of this tragedy, as the search for survivors came to a close and the tumult of the initial clean-up subsided, an unexpected trace of the villages and lives that had been destroyed began to emerge. Members of the Japanese self-defense forces, police, and fire officials began to collect, and volunteers had started to salvage and display, the found photographs in local school centers. The photographs in this exhibition are specifically from the town of Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture.

Unintentionally, the collection grew, and the conversation around what to do with these memento mori spurred the creation of a group called the Lost & Found Project. Their mission was to sort and prepare the photos for potential return to their owners. Volunteers cleaned and digitized the images, which vary in condition from relatively clean to damaged beyond recognition. Some of the photographs are so badly eroded that even after they were washed, they could not be returned. Yet each of these images had been created with the intention of memorialization, in an attempt to capture a treasured event in someone’s life.

As the photo-critic Geoffrey Batchen writes, “We all take photographs. We take pictures when we are having fun, when we want to immortalize a moment shared with another person. The photographs in Lost & Found were also taken under those circumstances. The depth of emotion might vary from picture to picture, but each one captures a point in time that somebody wished to commemorate. On the one hand, they speak of death and suffering, of loss and destruction. Yet on the other, they offer us an affirmation of life, even the possibility of a transcendence of the very fate they themselves embody. They remind us that photography, whatever its quality, place of origin or mode of production, is, before all else, a declaration of faith. By looking at these photographs, we bear witness to that faith. In sharing it, for this brief moment, we declare our common humanity and are moved to murmur, even if only to ourselves: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.’ ”

This exhibition offers us an opportunity to think about the relationship people have with their photographs, and also to consider the significance of photographs themselves. LOST & FOUND: 3.11 Photographs from Tohuku reflects the transitive nature of existence, the power of nature over humankind, and the reconstruction of a hopeful future.