It has been said that even in the darkest of moments, a rose can bloom. For Kei Sato, a photographer who lost his mother in the Great East Japan Earthquake, truer words have not been spoken.
Sato married fellow-photographer Natsuki Yasuda last July, four months after the tsunami took his mother's life in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. Together, the newlyweds have been photographing people in Rikuzentakata and will hold a joint photo exhibition at Idem Photo Gallery Sirius in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward from April 26 to May 16.
Yasuda was initially touched by Sato’s will to record disaster-stricken areas, despite his personal loss.
Before their meeting, Sato, 29, had been taking photos of poverty in Africa, while the 25-year-old Yasuda had been focusing her lens on the same problem in Southeast Asia.
On March 11, 2011, when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck Japan, Sato was in Zambia. Worried about his parents, who lived in Rikuzentakata, he returned to Japan two days later. His father, 58, was safe, but his mother, then 54, was missing.
Despite his worries, Sato felt it was his mission to record the scenes of destruction that greeted him in Rikuzentakata. When he wasn’t snapping photos, he visited evacuation centers searching for his mom. Three centers listed a person going by the same name as his mother, but in each case it turned out not to be her. He also visited sites where the bodies of victims were being kept, to no avail.
Then, on April 9, the body of a woman clutching dog leashes in her hand was found at a site about 9 kilometers from the city center. It was Sato’s mother. An acquaintance had told Sato that he saw his mom walking two dogs in the city center shortly before the tsunami struck.
Around the time his mother was cremated, in mid-April, Sato discovered some green Persian speedwell plants growing amid the tsunami debris. He took pictures of the tiny flowers, about the size of a little finger.
“I came to accept my mother’s death and I was able to draw an emotional line,” he said as he recalled that moment.
He changed his focus from that point, from devastated streets and damaged buildings to people moving forward in times of extreme hardship. He also helped deliver relief supplies when he had time.
Yasuda first visited Rikuzentakata in late March, in response to a request for help since there was a shortage of relief workers. She found evacuation centers crowded with people who had lost their homes and conversations filled with talk of death.
But she also found Sato. Yasuda was impressed with her fellow photographer, who had taken more than 1,000 pictures a day and maintained a positive attitude, despite losing his mother.
“I have found my mother’s body, which was good,” he would tell people.
Yasuda quickly grew fond of Sato, and they found support in each another. That summer, they got married.
Together, they have pledged to use their talents to make a difference in the disaster area.
“I will keep taking photos of the people (in Rikuzentakata) until they become truly positive,” said Sato, who still visits Rikuzentakata with his wife a few times each month.
“I want to help bring smiles back to the city that has been such a large part of my new family,” Yasuda added.
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