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Tsunami Survivors Reunited with Their Lost Memories

Imagine for a moment that you have a single photo album with all of your most precious memories frozen in time in that one book. Now think about losing that album, with no possible hope of ever getting it back.

While this might sound quite bleak, this is what it would have been like for some of the survivors of the survivors of the Tōhoku tsunami in March 2011. Except for them, it wasn’t just one photo album, it was all of their memories, and everything else they owned.

The tsunami killed almost 20,000 people, and more than a million building were either damaged or destroyed. And those people who survived, had their lives turned upside down forever, and they would never have thought that their photographs of how life once was would ever come back to them.

The photos were dirty and badly damagedFor some of these people, a miracle would come, in the form of Ricoh, a multinational imaging and electronics company based in Japan. Just a month after the disaster, Ricoh and various other supportive organisations launched a programme called the Save the Memory Project.

Over the course of the following four years, millions of photos that had been washed away by the tsunami and thought to be lost forever, were collected and sent to Ricoh.

Each photo went through various stages of cleaning, each one done individually. Those that could be saved were then dried and digitised using the image scanner from a digital photocopy machine.


Once the photos were cleaned, they needed to dry

Each of the image files were saved with a special control number for referencing purposes. The digitised photos were then rotated, so they were the right way around, and any irrelevant parts of the images were trimmed.

These edited versions of the photos were then stored in a large, web-based database system that had been built specifically for the Save the Memory Project. They were also tagged with phrases like “wedding photos”, “black and white” and “children” to help cut down on the search process.

The original restored prints were stored in protective plastic sleeves with their reference numbers printed on them and sent back to the regions where they had been found, stored in warehouses ready to be taken home.

To view the database images, people who had been affected by the tsunami could visit Save the Memory Photo Centers. These centres were set up in areas with a lot of space (that could be spared, as land became a precious commodity after the disaster), but that was easily accessible to large numbers of people.

Just a simple application form submission and the photos could be returned to their rightful ownersSurvivors could use the computers in the centre to view the database and search for and view images. When they found a photo that belonged to them, all they had to do was submit a simple application form. This form would include their personal information and the control number associated with that image, and the original copy or copies would be sent to them.

But Ricoh also wanted to make the process as simple as possible for searchers. To help with this, they developed an additional website with an improved version of the photo search database.

The search method would be a long and tedious task of searching through large thumbnail images, although, for some people, it would be worth it. And searchers could also use tags to narrow down their search, such as “wedding photos” and the other categories we mentioned earlier.

An additional feature was later added to the photo centres, allowing users to retrieve digital images using devices like USB memory sticks.

The project has come to an end now, but during those four years, almost 420,000 photographs were restored and added to the database. And more than 90,000 photos have been returned to their original owners, where they belong.

Thanks to Ricoh and everyone else involved, these memories have been saved.

Image source: The Ricoh website

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