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For 10 years, the photographer has been following the ravaged village

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On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami hit the Japanese coast, killing 200 residents of the centuries-old village of Kisen. Only two of the 550 homes were destroyed, and most of the survivors moved away. But 15 residents pledged to stay and rebuild the village, and Hiroko Masuike, a New York Times photographer and Japanese descent, has traveled twice a year from New York over the past decade to document their efforts.

Last month, a photo essay and article told the story of their design for the past 10 years. In an interview, Ms. Masuicki discussed the development of her project.

The earthquake and tsunami devastated many cities and villages. Why did you decide to focus on Kesen?

When the tsunami happened, I had to be there because my home country was going through a major disaster. Rikuzentakata, the city in which Kesen is located, was among the worst hit. I had a planned vacation, but 12 days after the tsunami, I landed at the nearest airport. I started photographing the wreckage and people at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, but I was still drugged.

One day, I was driving in Kesen and I saw a small temple on higher ground. Ten people lived there, and all over the city, there were other people living in the rubble. They were very different from everyone else who lived in the evacuation centers – they were very active. On the second day when I visited people at the temple, they said to me, “If you want to stay with us, you can.” I started picturing how they lived: they built a small hut where we eat; They were lit every day. They will try to clean up the place. They hoped to reunite their community.

How did this go from depicting the repercussions of a major disaster to a long-term project?

When I first went there, everyone opened up to me and put their trust in me. I didn’t want to be someone who’d go to a disaster area and then, when the news fades, he leaves and never comes back. So I kept coming back to photograph everyone every time and follow how they were doing. During the 10 years, I was able to spend a lot of time with the survivors and capture the right moment. I tried to be a good listener – I think they want to tell someone their stories, feelings, and frustrations. So they opened to me more when I kept coming back.

What were you hoping to capture at the start of the piece?

I had hoped that this community would be rebuilt. My first trip was in October 2011, and the government had started building prefab homes, so people were living there – except for this guy, Nawshi, who lost his son, a volunteer firefighter, in the earthquake. He thought that because his son’s soul had returned, he should be in the same place, so he rebuilt his house in August 2012. And I was hoping to put a date on when the temple would be rebuilt, because it was the center of the temple. Society for centuries.

Have you faced any challenges with this project over the past decade?

Most of the time when I returned, there were no changes in the community. The temple was rebuilt in 2017, but Rikuzentakata told the survivors they could not rebuild their homes where their homes once stood. The authorities worked to raise the level of the land for residential use. But the construction took much longer than they thought, and many people couldn’t wait that long and moved to another place, and the ground remained empty. When I returned this year to celebrate the tenth anniversary, the construction was complete, and the vision of the empty area was amazing: The village was once filled with people and houses, but 10 years later, there was nothing.

Will you continue to shoot Kesen?

I probably don’t need to go back twice a year. But the people I’ve been photographing are making some progress. One person is opening a dog-friendly café this summer. So I would like to keep visiting and photographing their lives. I’ve been seeing them for 10 years. It’s hard to stop.

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