Photographs on display during the exhibit's stop in Tokyo.

Rafu Staff Writer

The photos line one wall of the Hiroshi Watanabe Studio in West Hollywood, stretching from floor to ceiling, from corner to corner. From a distance, they make up a sepia-colored collage, a collection of seemingly abstract images whose whites, yellows, browns, and distorted patterns make them look as if they’ve caught fire.

Up close, though, signs of everyday life begin to come forward: the headlights of a car, the sleeve of a sweater, a gray hairline, a faded wooden butsudan, and the outline of a fluffy-headed baby with arms outstretched in its crib.

These are the photos that were swept away by the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and they make up “Lost and Found,” an exhibit that began in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture.

“The photos exhibited here are of children growing up, family events, vacations… the types of photos that anybody would take,” says Munemasa Takahashi, project leader of “Lost and Found.”

A closer look: among blurry figures and incomprehensible shapes, a peace sign remains visible.

“When you look at [these images], you begin to think of the people in the photos, the people who took the photos, and you realize that they were taken in those happy moments that people wanted to preserve.

“It’s really hard to actually sense these people when you hear about them in the news, because they just become numbers. We wanted to give people the opportunity to really feel the presence of the people behind these photos.”

“Lost and Found” came out of the Salvage Memory project, a volunteer effort to recover photos lost in the town of Yamamoto during the earthquake and tsunami, wash and digitize them, and return them to their owners.

For months, a team of more than 500 volunteers meticulously cleaned albums and individual photos of dirt, digitized and catalogued the images, and worked to find their owners. By the end of 2011, 680 albums and 12,000 photographs had been returned.

A volunteer cleans a photograph with a wet paintbrush.

Many photos, however, were too badly damaged to be returned to anyone. Some, having been stored in stacks instead of albums, were impossible to separate without ruining; others had simply been eroded by bacteria in the dirt.

“It seemed like a shame to throw them out,” says Takahashi. “So we thought maybe we could show these photos to people who couldn’t visit the Tohoku region.”

The process has been bittersweet for all involved. Sako Shimizu, a senior at Keio University and one of the volunteers who came to Los Angeles with the exhibit, says that the photos of babies affect her the most. Though the photos capture happy moments in peoples’ lives, viewing them is always clouded by the question of whether or not those people pictured were able to survive.

Takahashi tells the story of one older man who came to search for his lost photos. “As he was looking through the pictures, [the man] said, ‘Oh, this is my grandson’s friend.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great!’ But he said that this family was swept away and they all died.

“I experienced this kind of thing almost every day. It’s great when people can find their photos. On the other hand, there are those who aren’t able to find theirs. And then of course there are the people who died. So we can never feel simply happy; it’s a very complicated emotion.”

Takahashi and the rest of the volunteers behind “Lost and Found” hope that their exhibit will inspire others to try to do their part to help Japan’s recovery efforts. All donations (and 80% of the proceeds from the sale of exhibit posters) will be given, through the non-profit Yunihuri-Miyagi, to the Residents’ Councils of the temporary housing projects in the town of Yamamoto.

A small coastal town in the southern part of the Tohoku region, Yamamoto suffered the loss of its harbor as well as 614 people and more than 2,000 buildings. Because of “Lost and Found,” however, some of the residents’ most precious memories were able to be saved.

“Lost and Found” will remain in West Hollywood until March 25 at Hiroshi Watanabe Studio, located at 8810 Melrose Ave. (second floor), West Hollywood, between North La Peer Drive & North Robinson Boulevard. Open Thursday to Sunday, 12 to 7 p.m. Admission is free. From Los Angeles, the exhibit will travel to New York and Australia, then possibly to Taiwan and back to do a tour of Japan. For more information about the project, call (310) 245-8125 or visit

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