In a large, bright room not far from the ocean that raged through the coastal Japanese city of Ofunato nearly a year ago, a handful of people with magnifying glasses pore over boxes of photographs of friends or loved ones.
The massive March 11 tsunami that leveled buildings and flattened towns along a wide swathe of northern Japan also took a more subtle toll, with hundreds of thousands of photographs lost to the churning waters.
However, these memories are now slowly making their way back to their owners, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a team that cleans them of mud, dirt and oil.
“I got one photo blown up, and I was so thankful for that. I put it in a frame, and it brought tears to my eyes,” 77-year-old resident Yoshiko Jindai said, looking through boxes of photographs.
Ofunato has enlisted a team of seven parttime staffers to help sort though the more than 350,000 photos that have accumulated after being brought in by police, firefighters, rescue workers and the public who were looking through the rubble.
In charge of cleaning and restoring the photographs is paper conservator Satoko Kinno, who said her job is the second stage in the marathon of returning the photographs to their owners after they are found.
“I try to remember that people found these photos in the midst of rubble and that I have to take the baton from them. So that’s where I get my motivation,” Kinno said.
The photographs are frozen once found to prevent bacteria and mold from growing on them until they can be properly cleaned and packed for display.
The facility holds the photographs in its industrial-sized freezer containers until they can be dealt with. Once cleaned, they are packed into photo albums and taken around to temporary housing complexes in the hopes of finding their owners.
Other people choose to sort through boxes of photographs themselves for hours on end, looking for snapshots of their lives thought lost to the forces of nature.
Some laugh and chat as they search, as if at a casual social occasion. Others grab the books and flip through quickly, almost desperately.
However, even those who don’t find anything are grateful for the chance to sort through albums filled with thousands of photographs of children, graduations and even scenery of areas struck by the tsunami, now devastated.
“I have some photos and videos at my home, but it’s still very nice of them to do this,” 79-year-old Kimiko Tanaka said.
If somebody finds photographs that might belong to another person, a member of Kinno’s team will make the rounds of temporary housing to take the memories back to them.
Thousands have made their way back to grateful owners, but many thousands more remain unclaimed — or still frozen.
Kinno vows to continue until the last photograph goes home.
“I’ve really started to realize the depth and meaning that each and every photo has to it, and as such I want to do what I can to return as many photos as I can,” she added.