Japan Tsunami Relief & Photography

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Last spring, ASU photography major Airi Katsuta travelled to Japan to volunteer in the earthquake/tsunami recovery effort. Now, she’s selling 1,000 origami cranes to raise money for a return trip to continue her volunteer work. Katsuta talks about her experience in Japan, and she shares some of the photographs she captured during her stay.

TED SIMONS: When she was a little girl, Airi Katsuta moved with her family from Japan to Phoenix. Last summer, the ASU photography major returned to Japan to volunteer for tsunami relief efforts. Along the way, she captured images of devastation and hope. Now she's making and selling a thousand origami cranes to raise money for a return trip to Japan. Joining me now is Airi Katsuta. Good to have you here; Thanks for joining us.

AIRI KATSUTA: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: The idea of going over -- first of all, where were you when the quake and the tsunami hit?

AIRI KATSUTA: I was in my home in Ahwatukee, and I was working on my paper actually, and then I saw it on the news, and my sister and my mother were actually in Japan when it happened, And I just couldn't believe my eyes.

TED SIMONS: What were your first thoughts?

AIRI KATSUTA: It was just -- I was speechless. I didn't know what to say. Just all the -- the black waves coming into the city and taking everything away.

TED SIMONS: When you -- you moved, obviously, how old were you when you came to America?

AIRI KATSUTA: When I was 6 years old.

TED SIMONS: Six years old? So you do have memories, and you do -- you had a grounding in Japan. Did you -- when did you decide you had to go back over and help?

AIRI KATSUTA: My sister actually volunteered earlier on, and she told me how amazing her experience was, and I felt like I needed to help out, and it's my country, so, you know.

TED SIMONS: Where did you go when you went over?

AIRI KATSUTA: I went Ishinomaki prefecture, and it's about 100 miles away from the nuclear power plant.

TED SIMONS: 100 miles away. And what did you see when you got there?

AIRI KATSUTA: Just every rubble and cars just flipped over and mud everywhere.

TED SIMONS: We have some of your photographs we want to take a look at. You mentioned cars flipped over. The first photograph we're looking at, that's a car, and is that a graveyard?

AIRI KATSUTA: Yeah. We actually couldn't move it with a bulldozer or crane because we didn't want to destroy the tombstones.

TED SIMONS: The next shot shows kind of a wide panoramic view of what looks to be -- that's flooded -- that's water. That's an entire region sitting under water, correct?

AIRI KATSUTA: Yeah. And that's actually the ocean from far -- everything was just gone.

TED SIMONS: When you take a picture like that one, do you have to -- sometimes with photography just putting that piece of metal between you and what you're shooting gives you a little bit of separation, maybe a little sense of distance. Did you feel that at all?

AIRI KATSUTA: I did. The first week I was there, it was so hard for me to photograph it; just taking it in with my own eye was just too much.

TED SIMONS: What do you look for in a photograph, especially in a scene like that? You're photography major, so obviously you've done different things with photographs, but with something like this, what do you look for?

AIRI KATSUTA: Just my feeling. I go with my gut.

TED SIMONS: Do you really?


TED SIMONS: This next photograph it's beautiful, and it's touching, and it's got a couple of folks that are literally looking out on devastation. I mean, did you have a chance to talk to these folks, or -- and what did you hear from them?

AIRI KATSUTA: They were telling me about where they used to go shopping, where they used to take their walks and just get -- telling me their memories of this place.

TED SIMONS: Did you see in those kinds of folks was there desperation, was there sadness, was there courage, was there hope? What did you feel?

AIRI KATSUTA: They were not acting like victims at all. They were so positive and so ready to move on and start rebuilding and recovering.

TED SIMONS Is that what you expected? Was that a little bit of a surprise?

AIRI KATSUTA: It was. I thought people were going to be crying, just being sad about their homes being gone, but they were just positive.

TED SIMONS: We have another photograph here. Again, this looks like it's got some sort of cemetery feel to it. And then nothing but devastation. It must have been everywhere.


TED SIMONS: When you see a shot like this, let's get back to photography elements, what are you trying to say with this photograph?

AIRI KATSUTA: That there's flowers in the front, and people are still coming in to, you know, just show hope.

TED SIMONS: And the next photograph shows, again, one of the dichotomies of what looks to be a graveyard cemetery and absolute devastation, and then you've got other buildings in the background. Does a shot like you walk up and say, "I got it" or do you just take a shot like that and when you develop it later you go, "Ooh I got it?"

AIRI KATSUTA: That one especially I knew it when I shot it.

TED SIMONS: Because you saw it and said, "I gotta get that one."


TED SIMONS: The last photograph here is interesting. I couldn't quite make out what this was. What are we looking at there?

AIRI KATSUTA: It's tera tera bouzu, a traditional handmade amulet that kids make in Japan, and they make it to stop the rain or hope for a sunny day.

TED SIMONS: Oh, that would obviously be a wonderful photograph. We go from that to you trying to raise funds now to get back. Why do you want to go back?

AIRI KATSUTA: I feel that it's very important for me to return there. I hope for every year to see the recovery process.

TED SIMONS: Do you want to document again with photographs?


TED SIMONS: Now to raise the money, you are -- are you making origami cranes.


TED SIMONS: What have you got here?

TED SIMONS: This is a printing process called cyanotypes, it's a design on a paper, and I fold it, a thousand of them, and they say if you make a thousand, your wish will come true. Not for materialistic things but for good health and good luck, I wanted to wish that for them.

TED SIMONS: Let's get a shot of it on the camera. That is absolutely gorgeous. How long does it take to make something like that?

AIRI KATSUTA: It took me a couple months to do all thousand of them because I have to cut the paper, print it and wash the paper, fold it, string it. So much to do.

TED SIMONS: And the paper looks like it's blue, but it's got like a little feathery kind of look to it as well that. And that was designed?


TED SIMONS: Origami, have you always been interest in the origami or…?

AIRI KATSUTA: Yeah. Most Japanese kids learn how to fold cranes when they're little. It's just something that we know how to do. At least it was for me.

TED SIMONS: How many have you sold so far?

AIRI KATSUTA: As of now I've raised $2,441.

TED SIMONS: That's pretty good. Don't you think?


TED SIMONS: A lot of origami cranes. What does your family think of all this?

AIRI KATSUTA: They're very proud of me, and they're really excited about this project coming together.

TED SIMONS: And so when you go back now and you go back to take photographs, will you help with relief efforts as well? Is that pretty much been moving along to that it's not necessarily needed right now?

AIRI KATSUTA: They still need volunteers, and they depend on volunteers to come to do the recovery process, but I already did that, and I think it's more important for me to use my skill as a photographer and spread awareness. I didn't want to do, you know, volunteering and photographing like at the same time and do everything halfway. So I wanted to focus on one thing and document it.

TED SIMONS: Did this, before all this happened now, before the quake and the tsunami, were you kind of one person and afterwards, are you a different person?



AIRI KATSUTA: I feel more connected to my Japanese roots now. Since I've been living here for so long, I kind of lost touch of it. But after being there, feeling all the positive energy, I learned to not care about the little things. And realized how short life is.

TED SIMONS: Isn't that something. Well, congratulations. You're doing great work. Good luck with the origami cranes. They're beautiful.

AIRI KATSUTA: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: They're absolutely gorgeous. And thank you for the photographs as well. And good luck. We wish you the best.

AIRI KATSUTA: Thank you.

Airi Katsuta:ASU student;

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