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A Second Life

I had spent the month of February in tranquil Nara, Japan and through its NHK-televised (and English-translated) news, I witnessed the selfless volunteerism of many to restore photographs that had been salvaged from the March 11 tsunami that hit northern Japan last year.

Whilst the world’s attention had been focused on the clean-up of the nuclear crisis of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, many Japanese, including university students, professionals and non-professionals and global citizens like All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based, non-profit organisation who enlisted the help of “scores of volunteers — from Sydney to Spain,” were moved to clean up photographs, to give them and their owners, a second life[1].

The photo-retouchers and paper conservators not only restore the soiled images (often digitally using Photoshop for instance) but also endeavour to return thousands of photographs to their owners. Many subjects in these photos had of course perished in the tsunami and for survivors trying to rebuild their lives, these restored photographs restore memories of loved ones. Says Bob Whitmore who learned about the photo rescue project on Facebook, “It’s the most satisfying work I think I’ve ever done, taking old photos and breathing some life into them…People just light up when they see something come back that they thought was gone.” For paper conservator Satoko Kinno, she vows to press on until the last photo is returned. She adds that, “I’ve really started to realize the depth and meaning that each and every photo has to it, and as such I want to do what I can to return as many photos as I can.”

Next month marks the first anniversary of this disaster and the NHK which is Japan’s sole public broadcaster will feature a series of programmes, ‘A Year After March 11, 2011’ to highlight not only what went wrong in “one of the biggest disasters in a generation” but also lessons learned2. I hope that these narratives of hope featuring human resilience of the tsunami survivors in rebuilding their lives from ground zero and the human compassion of the photo rescuers will be privileged.

Having returned to Malaysia, I join the Catholic Church here in reflecting on the “very heart of Christian life: charity” and in particular, the biblical verse, “Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works” (Hebrew 10:24).3 The countless individuals dedicating their lives to clean up the nuclear plant and the photographs, are acts of “good works” that “stir a response in love” in empowering survivors to overcome their despair of the death of loved ones and hope in a second life.

See Frank Langfitt ‘In Japan, Restoring Photos For Tsunami Victims’, NPR, August 19, 2011, Chris Meyers, ‘Japan Tsunami: Photographs Lost To Disaster Returning To Owners’, Huffington Post, February 27, 2012, available at:
2 See
3 ‘Celebrating Lent’, Herald Lenten Supplement, February 26, 2012, page I.