03 August 2015

Otsuchi Future Memories

03 August 2015 - Written by Simon Hall

"My subjects would sit or stand with their family in complete silence for several minutes – it was reminiscent of a small ritual and it was incredibly moving for the people involved." Alejandro Chaskielberg talks about his project Otsuchi Future Memories.

Since 2011, Alejandro Chaskielberg hasbeen periodically visiting the fishing town of Otsuchi innortheastern Japan, a small coastal community that was devastatedfollowing the 2011 tsunami. Challenging the conventional notions ofdocumentary photography by shooting long exposures in the dead of thenight, Chaskielberg photographed the residents of Otsuchi within thefootprints of their former homes and workplaces; a process that hesays was extremely emotive and introspective for his subjects. Thenegatives, originally shot in black and white, were then tinted usingthe vibrant color palette found in a water-damaged family photoalbum. The resulting images - at once jarring and mesmerizing -bridge a gap between the past and the present.

From the series Otsuchi Future Memories by Alejandro Chaskielberg

How did you first becomeinterested in the idea of capturing the aftermath of the tsunami thathit Japan in 2011?

In 2012, I went to Japan for anexhibition of my previous work, The High Tide. I was interested inthe fishing culture of Japan – having previously lived on an islandto realize The High Tide – and so I wanted to find a fishing townin which I could produce a new series. After conducting someresearch, I discovered this small fishing town named Otsuchi.Coincidentally, one of the curators of my show in Tokyo had relativesthere, so with these local connections, I decided that this would bean ideal starting place.

Otsuchi is just a small fishing town,yet it is also a place that has suffered terribly due to the tsunamiin 2011. It was very shocking to work in the aftermath of a tragedylike this, and it was something that I had never experienced before –it was certainly a challenge for me to work in that environment.

What is the current state ofOtsuchi – how has the town and its people responded to thecatastrophe?

I made three separate trips toOtsuchi to realize this project. The first trip was one year afterthe tsunami. The people were still in shock, the city was destroyed,and the remains of the houses were still visible. It was all veryrecent and many people were still living in temporary housing. Theirfirst reaction to me was fantastic. I was travelling with myfour-month old baby and for the residents of Otsuchi – where nobodyhad babies at that time – it was very moving and affecting forthem: this helped me a great deal.

During my research, I found that manyof the survivors had taken pictures in the empty spaces where theirhouses once stood during the day. So, on that first trip, I began myproject by taking portraits of the Otsuchi residents in thefootprints of their old homes, workplaces etc. – a practice thatwas very common for them. The second trip was better because by then,everybody knew who I was and what I was doing. Over the course of thethree trips, I didn’t see a single person of Western origin – allthe people there are Japanese, so I was recognized very easily.

How did you find subjects for yourphotographs?

I started making connectionsthrough the family of the Japanese curator I worked with in Tokyo,and they began introducing me to their friends. They had lived inOtsuchi all their lives, and so they were well-known within theircommunity. On my first trip, I made 12 images with people and I alsophotographed the structures that had survived the tsunami. When Iwent back for a second time, I made connections through differentchannels – I ran a workshop for the locals who were interested inphotography. After the tsunami, the people of Otsuchi have usedphotography as a way to record their lives again, having lost alltheir belongings and family albums. This opened more doors for me asstudents would introduce me to their family and friends, and I wouldoften receive calls from people who had heard about the project,asking if they could participate.

On which trip did you find thedestroyed family album that became so important in this series?

I found the family album on thefirst trip. There are many objects like that just lying in the street– albums, passports, etc. – everything can be found there.Looking at this album was shocking for me and it marked a turningpoint in my project. Such photographs are part of our memories andidentity, and it was from that moment that I decided to search foradditional destroyed images. Now I was not only working withsurvivors, but I was also creating a dialogue between my own imagesand those that I could find throughout the city.

On my second trip, I made contact withthe both the local Government, and NGO’s in Otsuchi. I encounteredan organization that was in the process of restoring found images –cleaning them up and then returning them to the families. After anumber of meetings, they granted me access to their archive whichcontained thousands of photographs – I selected around 200 that Icould work with. The project shifted significantly on that secondtrip – it had become a dialogue between the past and the present.

Why did you select this techniqueof shooting long exposures in the dead of the night to portray thesefamilies?

I used this technique in myproject The High Tide. For the people I shot in that series it was avery introspective experience. My subjects would sit or stand withtheir family in complete silence for several minutes – it wasreminiscent of a small ritual and it was incredibly moving for thepeople involved.

It was with this in mind that I decidedto work in the same style for this project. For the residents ofOtsuchi to stay motionless for several minutes, in a place where theyonce lived that was destroyed so recently, was an extremely emotionaljourney for them. I wanted to set up this situation and see how thecamera could capture that poignant, impassioned moment.

From start to finish, includingthe time it takes to arrange and construct the image, how long doesit take to produce a single photograph?

I always research the places Iphotograph in detail and it takes on average two hours to produceeach image. The exposures take between five to ten minutes, dependingon the situation, and they are originally made in black and white. Atthe beginning, I was unsure which technique to use. It was only whenI was back in Buenos Aires looking at the black and white images andthe family album together, that I realized that I wanted to build abridge between the past and the present utilizing the colors of theimages.

Is there an image in the seriesthat is particularly meaningful to you?

Yes – the one that depicts fourpeople sat in an empty space. This was taken one year after thetsunami and there are many reasons why this is a personal favorite.Firstly, I like the composition very much – I see two differentworlds. The ruined house in the foreground is a completely differentimage than that in the background. One of the structures visible inthe background was the house that had a large ship hovering over itafter the disaster – the image was well circulated in the media.

Secondly, I began testing what I woulddo, with this image – I originally tried to imitate the real colorsthat I saw when I was there but then I started to experiment with thecolor palette and I made the decision instead, to pick up the colorsfrom the historic photographs I found. It is a key image for me.

What equipment do you use to makethese photographs?

I use a Sinar Norma 4x5” largeformat camera with black and white film. There are also some colorimages made with positive film. Occasionally I will use a digitalcamera to research and test the light when conditions are poor. Totest the moonlight for example, I push the ISO very high in order tosee in 15 seconds what the camera will see in 8 minutes. It is a veryimportant tool and it enables me to realize what the moonlight willilluminate. I use digital technology regularly, but just as arehearsal instrument – much like a Polaroid camera.

What other projects are youcurrently working on?

I will publish a book about thisproject in the middle of the year and it will be presented at ParisPhoto in October. I don’t know which project will be the next one.I am currently working on a very autobiographical project that isabout me and my daughter - it is comparable to a family album withpictures and texts. This is an ongoing project and I also have otherideas that I am working on.

To view moreof Chaskielberg's work, visit his profile.

Written by

Simon Hall

Reading time

7 minutes

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