Bringing photos to life

Photos by Michiko Straker and Renee Booe
Photos by Michiko Straker and Renee Booe

Bringing photos to life

by: Tetsuo Nakahara | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: November 26, 2013

Five volunteers from U.S. military bases in Japan recently traveled nearly 300 miles to bring something to Ishinomaki City that many residents haven’t seen since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – a smile on their faces captured by photography.

The photographers were part of Project Hohoemi, or Smile (in Japanese), which took them to the formerly devastated Tohoku region Oct. 24 to 27. Their mission: Take photos to replace those that many lost – along with so much else – after the disaster.

Project members consisted of civilians from Yokota Air Base, Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Camp Zama. They came together via word of mouth and Facebook for three days of tightly scheduled photo shoots involving nearly 150 families comprised of 300 individuals.

“Being able to photograph people and see the joy on their faces when they caught a glimpse of the back of our cameras was a highlight,” said Renee Booe, a photographer from Yokota. “My absolute favorite part was being invited into some of the families’ homes after photographing them. They were so generous and just wanted us o visit with them. I felt very honored that they would want me to sit and have tea with them.”

The team collaborated with several locally based Christian organizations to photograph as many people as possible. Members focused on those living in temporary housing, but also photographed children in schools and residents of nursing homes and private houses.

The photographers are currently working on printing the photos which will be delivered in December. They covered their own travel costs but collect donations to pay for the prints.

“It was wonderful that they came here to take pictures for us,” said Chiyoshi Kamiyama, a 68-year-old flower shop owner. “It has been a long time since my wife and I were photographed by someone like this … maybe the first time since our wedding,” he added laughingly. “It was little embarrassing but very nice. The picture will always be a memento for me and my wife.”

In the days following the tsunami, the couple was forced to live on the upper floor of their home because the tsunami had flooded the first floor and the storage shed, destroying their personal photos. Kamiyama also lost his flower shop to the tsunami. He singlehandedly rebuilt his business in five months and now operates out of his home. In his spare, time he volunteers to help his neighbor rebuild.

“I wanted to restore my flower shop as soon as possible to send a positive message to my neighbors,” he said. “It has been two and half years; we have to hold our heads up high, not look down.”

Kamiyama’s photo session took place on the site of the junior high school he graduated from. The school itself was demolished by tsunami. He said the schoolboy memories the site brought back made the photo shoot even more special. There are also reminders, however, of more recent and less pleasant times in Ishinomaki.

While the volunteers were in town, a mild temblor struck, setting off the city’s tsunami warning system. There was no damage, but it was a scary moment for some. However, the resilience exemplified by Ishinomaki residents and the stories of survival they shared during photo shoots made it easy for the photographers to complete their mission unwaveringly – and learn a little about the local culture in the process, according to Booe.

“Even in the midst of heavy rain, an earthquake and a tsunami warning, everyone on this trip remained positive and upbeat,” she said. “And how could we not! We were received with such kindness and thankfulness that I almost cried at every photo shoot. I was there to serve and give back, but I received far more than I could ever give.”

For more information or to donate to Project Hohoemi, visit: