To the lazy news media, the sight of damaged photographs randomly scattered by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami merely functioned as convenient visual shorthand for the enormity of it all. However, some Japanese photographers and volunteers recognized in them an opportunity to serve and comfort instead. Nathanael Carton documents the efforts of Project Salvage Memory to find, restore, and return lost family photos in the short film Recollections (trailer here), which screens this Thursday at the San Francisco International Film Festival, following hard on the heels of its run at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
The images say it all. The scarred remembrances of once vibrant family lives are heartbreaking to behold. Carton nimbly walks a fine line, capturing their devastating emotional resonance without feeling ghoulishly exploitative. Indeed, the real heart of the film involves the (primarily young) volunteers who set out to console those grieving loved ones. It might have started as a simple gesture, but the Project has since recovered over 75,000 photos.
Clearly, the restitution process has tremendous significance for the survivors. Obviously, the photographs facilitate closure, particularly as the focal point for funerals and subsequent memorial services. Yet not surprisingly, the Project founder Carton interviews is unflaggingly modest when speaking of his work.