The Power of a Photograph

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Posted on March 23, 2013

(Copyright Dean Chapman)
(Copyright Dean Chapman)

Last week, we headed over to Newcastle for the day  to see an exhibition of photographs by Dean Chapman at the Side Gallery. We were not disappointed.

Dean travelled around the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island several months after the catastrophic tsunami. He had visited the region previously (in 2000) – and he has a personal connection with the area; his wife is Japanese.

Some of the photographs showed the devastation with ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. Most were shocking, harrowing, saddening; including those of the methodical clean up. But the images that stood out most for me were those that Dean had taken of families’ personal photographs. Photo albums and pictures that were found in the wreckage had been gathered by survivors, and put to one side of the street in Tanohama. People had taken it on themselves to collect these memories and lay them out for others to find. Some of the images and albums have been taken away, others are peeling, fading, becoming distorted as they battle against the elements of dirt, moisture and time.

As I stood looking at the pictures I felt drawn into stories of the past, suggestions of activity, laughter, celebration, daily life; at the same time I was drawn into the present, an empty devastation where hope and perseverance struggle against the odds to continue through life with some sense of positivity.

Tens of thousands of people lost their lives in this tsunami. Thousands more are missing, or still homeless. For many of those that survived, the power of the wave took away everything they owned and most of what they knew – houses, cars, possessions, streets, pavements, trees, familiar scenes. Almost everyone will have been affected by the loss of loved ones, family members, friends.

The photos that have been assembled show faces, they capture moments in time; they may be the only record of people and places whose time has passed, for ever. Wondering how many of them will be unclaimed – because there is no-one left to claim them – is a sobering thought (if any more sobering is needed after seeing the exhibition).
Dean Chapman’s exhibition: The Archeology of Disaster has just finished showing at the Side Gallery but you can see many of his images on his site.

Meanwhile, if you’re anywhere near the Side Gallery, call in. It is the only exhibition space in the UK dedicated solely to documentary photography. Tomorrow, a new exhibition opens: Patrice Terraz ‘Welcome on Board’ documents the story of ships’ crews who find themselves abandoned by ‘unscrupulous’ owners and left without papers, in port, when it’s cheaper to leave a boat (and the workers) in port than to set sail, or officially scrap it.

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