UnknownSpring: web documentary review and interview with photojournalist Jake Price
March 6, 2013
The tsunami of 2011 devastated the Tohoku region of Japan killing thousands of people, flooding agricultural fields, destroying houses, profoundly transforming the land and survivors. Jake Price lived with the residents of Yuriage in their kasetsus (government-issued trailer homes) and observed, “the survivors [...] responded to the situation with compassion and determination, exerting a power far greater than the fury of the tsunami’s black waters” (Curtis, 2012). UnknownSpring, a collaboration between Jake Price (director and photographer) and Visakh Menon (art director and programmer) along with several contributors, presents an audiovisual collage documenting the endurance of the people in Yuriage as they rebuild their way of life, while making a renewed connection to their history and culture.
The visual design of the site captures the eerie feel of the black tsunami waters. The design is simple, calm, there is no animation calling for my attention, only a full screen slide show with slow dissolves between images playing under the title text. A single orange button invites me to view the table of contents. I click it and the site reveals a collection of chapter headings, each paired with an image and a brief caption.
The chapter “Erasure” reveals new images and text that reads like a terse journal entry, “Following the tsunami I slept in a center for the displaced meeting people who lost their homes and people they loved. At night we’d drink whisky and eat little good things that we managed to find in convenience stores.” The site reveals a map of the region, with icons indicating the availability of photos. Each of the icons reveals a slide show. This chapter is quiet, I’m left to contemplate the images. The map combines post-tsunami street views and photos of Yuriage at a variety of locations. This chapter provides a sense of the destruction and the geography upon which subsequent chapters build upon with more emotional and poetic layers.
The “Aftermath soundscape” chapter adds sound to a series of photographs shot while the black waters receded, presented as a video. The soundtrack is varied, and ends on the sound of rushing water over black. The navigation (throughout the site) is straightforward and familiar, much like the navigational structure of a book. At any point in this and other chapters, I can click on a orange button in the upper right hand corner that will take me back to a scrolling index with an entry for each of the chapters from left to right.
The “Lights for the Departed” chapter presents a video and slide show documenting the Obon festival in which people make lanterns to call their relatives back home so the dead know they are not forgotten. Yuriage lost one in seven people to the tsunami. The video documents the first Obon in Yuriage after the tsunami, the lanterns take on added significance as they were placed in the sea to guide the spirits back out into the ether. I appreciate the ability to read about the festival prior to seeing the video without having to leave the site. UnknownSpring makes good use of the web browser’s ability to present multiple media types on one page. Some things are better in words, others as video. A web documentary provides makers with the ability to present viewers with choices driven by the subject matter, depending on the maker’s approach this may be confusing or welcome. In the case of UnknownSpring the choices are straightforward and sensible.
After about thirty-five minutes on the site I’m left with a sense of a seaside town. While the news reports at the time made clear the intensity and scale of the destruction, UnknownSpring brings specific people and rituals into my consciousness. The poetic prose and personal profiles balance the devastating images, and thankfully without the ponderous voiceover of traditional television documentaries and news reports. I appreciate being able to linger on the words, slide shows, and videos. The ability to book end the photos and videos with words makes it possible for the images to work on their own with just the right amount of context the words provide, each medium touching a different part of me.
Navigating through UnknownSpring has a meditative quality. In spite of the devastation, the people of Yuriage are presented as survivors who continue with the rhythms of their daily life the best they can. Each of the chapters presents respectfully observed documentation of the survivors, devastation, the cleanup, traditional celebrations, and personally important milestones since the tsunami devastated the area. The ambient sound incorporated in the work is used effectively to enhance the photographs, bringing the sonic texture of Yuriage to the experience.
UnknownSpring demonstrates how web documentaries can make use of prose, typography, photography, video, and sound in effective ways. To be able to stop and linger on a photograph or text in UnknownSpring, or carefully study statistics and background articles as presented in other web documentaries like Prison Valley, gives the viewer a level of agency akin to browsing the library shelves, but with the advantage of the documentary maker’s curatorial choices. Is it a photo essay? A documentary? A web site? The only term that seems right to describe UnknownSpring is a web documentary. This emerging genre has little in common with a traditional linear documentary, but it has a lot in common with the notion of documentary as described by Robert Coles in Doing Documentary Work, “…an essay allows for more space, for a mix of literacy and analytic sensibility, for that other mix of factuality and opinion, and for the particular writer’s idiosyncratic approach to a given topic” (Coles, 1997).
After visiting UnknownSpring several times I was curious about the back story so I got in touch with Jake Price in order to ask him several questions about the work. What follows is an edited version of our e-mail exchange.
David Tamés: What is the genesis of the project, how did you get started working on UnknownSpring?
Jake Price: UnknownSpring came together organically in every way. I was in New York when the tsunami struck. At first I wasn’t even going to go to Japan. When I read about it upon waking up I felt a deep sadness for what had engulfed Japan. The previous year I spent working in Haiti after their earthquake. I don’t consider myself a disaster photographer nor did I think that my presence in Japan would mean anything so I just stayed home reading accounts of what was happening.
Over the next 48 hours something was nagging at me though, I didn’t know what it was but it kept growing in me. The following Monday I was on a plane bound for Tohoku. When I got on the plane I started thinking about all the influences Japan had in my life. We have dear family friends who are from Japan and their art has always surrounded me. Because of these works a seed was planted in me, which lead me to tell a more artful story of the disaster.
When I got to the Tohoku region I was all alone. I didn’t have transportation and the days and nights were raw. I hitchhiked around the region the first few days and then found the village of Yuriage that was completely washed away. One in seven people perished there. I found the survivors living in a shelter in a neighboring town and though a friend I made, I arranged to sleep on the floor for three nights. I ended up staying with the refugees for three weeks and many of them are still friends.
People really let me into their lives and became my friends. Although we spoke different languages we bonded through food, another cultural aspect that has always been in my life. At night we’d drink whisky and eat little things we could find in convenience stores. When I discovered that a new friend I made liked a particular food I’d always look to pick something up in the store. I think the most beautiful thing about Tohoku is that people are always doing these little sweet things to give to each other. I fell into that as well. By observing what others enjoyed in life and then giving them those things we paid each other through kindness. In those days it was a treat to have anything that reminded one of normal life and pleasures. So, much of this project came about because of my bonding through food, giving and being given to.
Tamés: How did this evolve into the site that is now online, and why a web documentary?
Price: As I really got to know the people and the town I felt a need to tell a story more deeply and poetically than what is produced by the larger outlets. It took nearly two years and about ten trips back to Yuriage to produce UnknownSpring . I worked with an amazing designer Visakh Menon and we went through I think twelve versions of the site. We had no budget for it, all of it came out of our own pockets and the generosity of the people of Tohoku.
Having made such an effort to produce this site, we also just wanted to prove that a project like this one could be done by only two people and without a budget. We wanted to prove that a major project could be done with a mixture of frugality, perseverance, and heart.
Tamés: I think you certainly demonstrated what can be done with a small, dedicated team. I’m curious, what kind of work were you doing prior to creating this site?
Price: I’ve worked in Haiti, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Pakistan as a photographer. But I didn’t feel that I was connecting with those places as I did with Japan. My work in those countries was journalistic for the most part and while I felt for what people were going though, the Japan project resonated more deeply with me. It’s hard to describe, but being there I just felt at home so there was a more internal connection.
Tamés: You said you created UnknownSpring with no budget, but even no budget productions require time and resources, how did you fund the project?
Price: Along the way I produced pieces for the BBC to help pay for the trips, but there wasn’t much money in that. I was greatly aided by the generosity of one man in particular, Ken san who would almost insist on driving me around and helping me out. Without him this project would have never been possible. Looking back on it I could have raised money and been a lot more self-sufficient. But that would have kept me from forming the relationships I did. On my travels I’d always stay with survivors and their families. Because of that I think I was able to provide a deeper more human portrait of the people and place.
Tamés: What were some of the unexpected surprises along the way?
Price: The relationships I formed.
Tamés: Why were you motivated to do this as a web documentary rather than a book, photo essay, or another traditional form and venue? Is there some particular aspect of this subject matter that calls for expression as a web documentary?
Price: This project is a kind of collage. I shot with just about every format there is: panoramic black and white, two video formats, 6×7 chrome, digital, 35mm, iPhone (still and video), Leica 35mm and recorded hours of ambient audio. I was in a transitory phase in my career as I began to shoot more video. In the end, I just used what inspired me and decided that I would piece everything together later. The web was the perfect way to weave all of the elements. I’m not a fan of including stills and moving image together. But I wanted those elements to occupy the same space and to compliment each other. Again, the web let me do that whereas a film or a book would not.
Tamés: Can you give me a specific example?
Price: There’s one chapter entitled “Recovery of Memory.” The story behind that is that there was this school gym where every personal item that was found in the wreckage was taken to. It was tremendously touching to see everything form the smallest of wallet photos to a piano taken and saved in this space. As I was shooting I began to think of a creating a space that would further hold onto all that was lost and could not be washed away by an angry tide. In a way this site is an extension of the Yuriage gymnasium. It holds the last fragments of the town forever, located on multiple servers.
Tamés: What were your sources of inspiration in terms of the visual approach you took with this piece?
Price: From the beginning we approached this project viscerally and poetically. I wanted to transcend the notion of a web site as just a collection of portfolio type galleries. I wanted to entire site to be a story itself forming a cohesive narrative.
The films of Ozu were absolutely essential to my understanding of Japanese culture because he so purely portrayed daily life. I was always on the lookout for the small graces that he captured in his films to include in my work. The way people shared, laughed, and suffered quietly I found to be very dignified. I didn’t want to portray the people around me as victims but I also didn’t want their suffering to go unnoticed or unappreciated. With his gentle and detailed approach, Ozu taught me how to bring out the smallest of graces in situations that were not inherently dramatic.
I’m inspired by the films of Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky and the writing of William Faulkner. The photographers Josef Koulelka, Cartier Bresson and Sebastião Salgado have been strong influences in my life. With these influences in mind I wanted to create a new storytelling language for the web, one that guides a viewer from one state to another.
Tamés: I think you succeeded quite nicely as far as storytelling and guiding the viewer between states. What has happened since you launched the site?
Price: The response has been wonderful. The project took an honorable mention at the World Press Photo and I’ve received letters from colleagues, many of them who have been in the most difficult and hardened situations, saying that this work moves them.
Tamés: I see you are also working on a video documentary, how is that project connected to / different from UnknownSpring?
Price: In my heart I’m a filmmaker, so I wanted to make a film. Cpm 703 is mainly traditional filmmaking so it’s very different In that I’m only using video and audio to tell my story. The film focuses on people living in Fukushima, another causality of the tsunami. The film is simply another chapter in the aftermath.
Tamés: Is UnknownSpring an ongoing project? Where do you hope to take it? Would you describe it as an evolving documentary or is it now a static entity?
Price: I will always return to Yuriage. Now people are having babies, trying to make something grow from their ancestral lands. I’ll be back to see what grows in the future.
Since it’s on the web it’s pretty much everywhere already, but I hope that the components will find a home in other venues. I am working on series of exhibits where we will make a kind of living website in a physical space. For that we will make traditional prints, create Lightbox tables that are illuminated from below of the portraits that people will walk through similar to the way the navigate between chapters on the site, include video and interactive maps of Yuriage.
Tamés: Are there some other web documentary works you consider good examples of the genre and its potential?
Price: UnknownSpring won the World Press Prize along with Alma: a Tale of Violence and Bear 71. I admired these works a lot. In general the CBC is doing a lot of nice stuff.
Price: We didn’t choose technology for the sake of technology. For example we were going to use Popcorn.js, but it didn’t fit so we took it out. It was tempting to use it because it was new, but ultimately we just wanted to tell a story and picked the tools to do it. The important thing about the site is the way one navigates through it, which the coding structure allowed us to do.
A key rule of the project was that we do not use technology for technologies’ sake. We used technology only if it would have furthered the story. If it didn’t fit, no matter how cool we thought it might be we didn’t use it. Now we have a big suitcase full of stuff to use for the next project.
Tamés: What do you want from your web development tools that they don’t currently provide?
Price: The programming was done by Visakh Menon so this might be a better question for him.
Tamés: I’d like to know from your perspective as a photographer and filmmaker?
Tamés: Would you do anything different today?
Price: No, well, yes. More content! And a little bit of funding would have made my life easier while on the ground.
Tamés: What advice would you give to someone who is about to embark on a web documentary project?
Price: Immerse yourself and enjoy it.
Coles, Robert (1997). Doing Documentary Work, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 24, print, ISBN: 0195124952.
Curtis, Elissa (2012). “Postcards from Tohoku: Japan, One Year Later, The New Yorker, blogs, March 7, www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/2012/03/dispatch-from-tohoku.html (accessed February 19, 2013)
All photographs and screen shots © Jake Price, all rights reserved.