Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Photographer Arito Suzuki Talks About Ishinomaki, Japan

Artists Help Japan interviewed talented Japanese photographer Arito Suzuki about what he had witnessed through the lens in Ishinomaki.  Ishinomaki is one of the most seriously affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.  The total number of death/missing is at over 3800 as of Feb 2012 and over 29,000 residents lost their homes.

Arito made numerous trips to Ishinomaki to help as a relief worker in the past year and as a prominent young photographer in Japan, captured the "real" people.

Besides the reports on the relief effort by our partners, we thought it'd be great to get a feel of what it is people are dealing with in Japan in their everyday lives.  Arito's photographs as well as his stories as a relief volunteer worker are worth your busy schedule to stop, see and read.



PART 1 : talking about my experiences in Ishinomaki
I first went to Ishinomaki on April 1st, just 20 days after the Earthquake and Tsunami had completely destroyed the city. From there, I spent the next three weeks working as a disaster relief volunteer with an organization which my friend had established. We concentrated our efforts to Ishinomaki and its greater region, which includes the Oshika Peninsula and many small islands. Since that first experience, I have returned to Ishinomaki many times, especially more so throughout the first 6 months when the situation required as many hands as possible. Our organization did almost everything, from shoveling mud out of houses, factories, schools, etc., to giving massages to the survivors living in the shelters. I was put in charge of organizing cookout stations in two temporary shelters, serving warm soup and other side dishes for a total of 1200 people per day.
There was no special reason behind my choice of going to Ishinomaki, except for the fact that one of my friends had already set up a base there. His “real” job is as a professional canoeist, owning his own small outfitter and taking people on river trips down the Shimanto River in Shikoku. But, he and a small group of his friends have been active volunteers in almost every natural, or human inflicted disaster, since the Kobe Earthquake in ‘95.
PART 2 : talking about my photographs
By default, I had my camera with me since day one, but after witnessing the destruction with my own eyes, and being an outsider who suffered no loss from the Tsunami, I was not able to point my camera at such a scene of demolition. It was not until I became acquainted with the people living in the shelters where we cooked, that I started taking photographs. First it was the children that visited us daily with curious eyes. They were living in cardboard cubicles with their entire family, and since the city was still in complete turmoil, the schools had not restarted yet. To them, we were like camp leaders, big boys and girls who were the prefect candidate to play and hang out with, since their parents were in no shape to do so. They quickly remembered my name, and I learned theirs, and through them, I was able to develop a relationship with the people of the shelter. And my time with them, is what eventually became the body of my photographs from Ishinomaki.
There is no deep, hidden message behind my photographs, except to show something else than all the negative, destructive images flooding the media. The Ishinomaki that I saw was not just destroyed houses, and crushed cars piled on top each other. It was a scene of human strength and brotherhood, people putting aside their selfish motives and working together to help one another. These were just ordinary people who amazed me with their strength and humility in the face of immeasurable loss and tragedy. Through my photographs, I wish to communicate hope, that one day Ishinomaki and the people of Tohoku will stand proud of how they faced and overcame, one of the biggest disasters of the century.
PART 3 : talking about what we need now
I can nott really speak for the entire city, but what Ishinomaki, and Tohoku needs right now, is first and foremost; employment. Many of the local businesses were destroyed by the Tsunami, and do not have the man power and/or the funding to restart. Thus, there has been a huge collapse of local economy throughout Tohoku. The next item on the list would be to build communities within the temporary houses, in order to support elderly people living alone. We have data from Kobe that starting around 2-3 years after the tragedy there was an increase in suicide cases by single elderly residents in temporary houses. Before the Tsunami, these people lived in small, tightly knit communities where everyone knew their neighbors, and took care of each other. Now with the temporary houses, there communities have been completely dismantled and a retired single person, is more or less, put in isolation not knowing who his new neighbors are.
As my message to those living abroad, what we need right now is not the same as it was a year ago. Money and supplies are not at the top of the list for things we wish to receive. Please, come and visit Japan, and travel through Tohoku. Stay at a local hotel, eat at a local restaurant, and buy souvenirs from a local store. If that is not possible, go on the web, and try to purchase goods produced from the Tohoku area. What we need is help in rejuvenating the economy of Tohoku, and that is something that can be supported even from the other side of the planet. But, probably my strongest plead, and here I speak for all the survivors, is to ask everyone not to forget. Not to forget about what happened on March 11th, 2011, not to forget about everything that we lost that day, and not to forget about those who survived and are living in grief and darkness, unsure of their future.
Thank you,

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