Artist Statement for “Schools in Tohoku” Series
Status: Complete

On March 11, 2011, massive earthquakes and tsunami hit north-east part of Japan (Tohoku) and wiped off large part of the area. Ishinomaki city, where my mother was born and grew up, and my uncle still lives, was the city that had the worst damage because of this disaster. Although I live in USA, I happened to be in Saitama, which is near Tokyo, Japan and was with my family at the time. We couldn't reach uncle's family for about eight days. When we were starting to think they didn't survive, we received a phone call from them and had a huge relief.

I did a lot of searches and found a way to get to the area where my uncle lives 10 days after the tsunami. After helping my uncle's family, I had one day to photograph in the area before my flight back to USA. Everything I saw there made me sick. It looked worse than any "end of the world" kind of Hollywood movies I have ever seen. Because there were traumatic scenes everywhere in the familiar area, I lost focus and did not even know how and what to photograph although I did try and shoot some. Even after I came back to USA, I could not get rid of the nightmarish sight out of my head. I could not help but being depressed about the fact that the large part of the town where I used to visit my grandparents is completely gone.

Although I knew going back there would make me sick again, I felt that giving up on photographing there meant giving up on my mother's hometown. I started to think about what I really wanted to photograph. I am a photographer who photographs people. There were (and still are) a lot of people at the evacuation shelters, suffering. However, unlike me, I did not come to a conclusion to photograph the people there. I realized that what I really wanted to photograph was not the people at shelters, but was the existence of the people who were there since before March 11th, 2011 and during the disaster, who evacuated to places, who cleaned up while there and non-existence of the people after the disaster. I wanted to document the pieces of where the people were, what they saw, what they experienced, how they lived their lives, and how it's gone now.

In December 2011 and February 2012, I went back to the area and photographed again with my Mamiya 7 and Linhof Technika. After almost one year, although a lot of debris was moved away, the area still looked very close to what I saw right after the tsunami. I photographed everything I could shoot, however, I started to focus on elementary and junior high schools. The reason why I focused on schools was because when I went in, a lot of them reminded me of my own schools. Most public schools have similar structures and use similar appliances and furniture. There were familiar desks, chairs, bathrooms, texture of walls, patterns on the ceilings, structures of the stairs, doors and windows, which have gone through the horrible disaster with the students. As I documented them, I was also letting myself absorb what has happened and accept the reality. This series is the only series in which you won't see people, in my portfolio. Although you won't see them, I hope you can feel the existence of the students who were there.


Ayano Hisa