Reconstructing a Different Present from Past and Novel Memories

Japanese photographer Mayumi Suzuki uncovers this world and another through a sensitive look at Japanese landscapes, snapshots, and portraits captured through her father’s lens.

Japanese photographer Mayumi Suzuki uncovers this world and another through a sensitive look at Japanese landscapes, snapshots, and portraits captured through her father’s lens.

The devastation unleashed by the 9.1-magnitude earthquake and subsequent 30-foot tsunami waves flooding the eastern coast of Japan on 11 March, 2011 wiped away entire villages along the shore as well as cities farther inland. More than 22,000 people went missing, and about five million tons of debris were swept offshore. Fears heightened as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station suffered partial meltdowns and radioactive material discharged into the air and water, the consequences of which are still unfolding today. 

A collective tragedy, news channels broadcasted the mourning of a country brought to its knees by unspeakable grief. A personal tragedy too, countless versions of the same horror story echoed accounts of loss and despair.

But Mayumi Suzuki’s project The Restoration Will doesn’t revolve solely around the tsunami. Certainly, it resonates with the point in time when the tremors struck. But it expands beyond it, unfolding what Suzuki calls a “new memory,” the emotional and spiritual drive to recover, she explains; facing the future, not the past.

The Japanese photographer carries her grief. But in her work she has crafted a personal and collective response, a gift of resilience and love. She was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit. Her sister survived, but her mother and father went missing. Their family house - which also served as her father’s photography studio - was ruined, branches and debris ripping the walls like paper.

Five years later, with her delicate and piercing work, The Restoration Will, Suzuki doesn’t cringe from looking back to those daunting days, though she reshapes the memory, in a subtle commemorative tribute. Compelled to tell her own personal story, she returned to her home in Onagawa. Unopened boxes contained images of her family: her father’s photos, his portfolio, family albums. She unearthed her father’s lens, muddied by the rubble but still intact, and used it to capture the tsunami’s aftermath: a landscape still under reconstruction. Through his murky lens, the images came out “dark and blurry, like a view of the deceased,” she writes on her website. And yet, it ignited her wonder and imagination: “What would my father see? What would my father think of this place?”

In a black-and-white image of Onagawa, fields and foundations emerge from shadow, light flickers like fireflies, but it’s a double-exposure. Although she initially cursed at the blunder, a dreamlike atmosphere surfaced in the darkroom, deep with emotion. “[It] seems like a spirit come back to the town,” Suzuki says, “Maybe my father was coming back and helped [me] to make the mistake.” The result is a dreamy composition encouraging a moment of reflection.

In another image, candles glimmer again, this time at the tsunami’s fifth anniversary. Suzuki and some of her family friends hold candles - some friends discuss the deceased, others complain about the cold as her husband manually - as if with a pinhole camera - opens and closes the lens. That afternoon it snowed again, as it did five years before.

Completing the project is a series of family snapshots, the images fading, bathed by mud, and her father’s portraits of ship carpenters. The water-stained cover of her father’s portfolio was used as the cover for The Restoration Will. It’s a sort of a joint view as Suzuki felt the influence of her father’s work, seeing the world through his lens, sensing him in her approach. Of this project, she says: “It’s [both] my will and my father’s will... that's why I recovered his portraits, to show what kind of photographer he was. And another part [is] recovery of the memories…Recovery of emotional…spiritual stuff.”

Moreover, the technique is subsumed in the mystery, overcome by her yearning to preserve the past and leave a new legacy for the construction of the present and future. “So my photos [are] like a bridge to the [other] world. And I hope that people who had grief, people see my photos and make a connection between [this and] the other worlds. This is what I hope.”

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Mayumi Suzuki is a Japanese photographer. She works as a visual storyteller to find and create personal narratives. She was born and raised in a family who ran a photo studio founded by her grandfather in 1930 in the city of Onagawa. 

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 
i

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 
i

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 
i

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series, The Restoration Will 

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series The Restoration Will
i

© Mayumi Suzuki, from the series The Restoration Will

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