Jake Price on Unknown Spring and Documenting the Japanese Tsunami

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Jake Price may primarily be known as a photojournalist, working for outlets like the BBC and the New York Times. But with his latest project, Unknown Spring, he’s strengthening a new identity as an immersive, interactive documentary filmmaker. As his thoughts below illustrate, however, he sees photojournalism, traditional film, and online interactive media all as an extension of nonfiction storytelling–different tools to explore

In March 2011 he journeyed to the Tohoku region of Japan to document the devastation left in the wake of the Pacific tsunami. That project eventually became an html5 website featuring photographs, audio recordings, full-motion video, and Price’s written descriptions of his work and impressions as he spent many months — and many return trips — with the people around the fishing village of Yuriage. The result isn’t just a record of the physical damage done by the tsunami, although that’s where the work necessarily started; instead, Unknown Spring is both a chronicle of and testament to the Japanese people’s resilience and humanity in the face of unspeakable odds.

The project was recently honored at the World Press Photo Multimedia Awards along with other perhaps better-known transmedia projects like Bear 71, showing that Unknown Spring needs to be experienced by a much larger audience. Price’s goal is not just to spread awareness abroad, however, but primarily to benefit the people in the affected area, as his comments below and the list of charities mentioned on the Unknown Spring website illustrate.

Price, who is based in New York, talked with Filmmaker via email from Sendai, Japan, where he’s busy shooting more footage.

Filmmaker: What’s your background? How did you come to want to document the Japanese tsunami, particularly at this particular village?

Price: For the past 15 years I’ve been working as a photojournalist and producer for the BBC in Pictures. I’ve contributed to Newsweek and the New York Times as a photographer. But at heart I’m a storyteller.

I’ve covered disasters and results of conflict on society all over the world, but the events unfolding in Japan really struck a chord in me. (The tsunami came to Tohoku so that wasn’t my choice, but getting the know the warmth and caring of people here kept me coming back.) I’ve always felt close to Japan and thought that I could tell the story well. I came here despite the fact that Fukushima could have blown at any time; my heart really wanted to tell this story.

I came without any organization or outlet supporting me. I was really broke at the time and colleagues were already north and out of contact, so it was impossible to travel with them. From Tokyo’s Haneda airport I got the last seat on the last flight to Yamagata which was the closest airport that would get me to some of the affected areas to the east. I landed in a big snowstorm. I knew no one in Tohoku at the time and had no place to go. After three hours of knocking on hotel doors in the snow I managed to find a place. The warm bath was very good that night.

After I left the hotel I had a bag of food and sleeping bag. I got around any way I could by taking buses, hitchhiking or just walking. Ultimately I found shelter in a center for the displaced and then went to another center where I made friends with people who I still see and who have helped support me with my ongoing projects here in Tohoku.

In the end, working with nothing was the best thing that could have happened because the people I met in those early days have become like family to me. During the hard times we experienced everything together: frightening aftershocks, fear of nuclear contamination and not a little bit of whiskey, some laughter and treasured comfort food when we could find it. As I said we still keep in touch and spend a lot of time with each other.

Filmmaker: So what is Unknown Spring? Is the finished product roughly what you envisioned?

Price: The short answer is that Unknown Spring is a web doc that focuses on a fishing village’s residents as they cope with overcoming the tsunami that obliterated their village on 3/11/11.

I love the design and feel of the site, but I’m never satisfied in totality. I wanted more content. I think Unknown Spring is an accurate portrayal of Tohoku in the aftermath and following year of the tsunami. However, I wanted more stories and to be closer to people. That just took time and I continue to tell stories of the aftermath, or, more correctly, stories of people moving on with their lives.

I’m now working on a traditional film, but it too will have a strong web presence that will weave all the elements I’m collecting together.

Filmmaker: What was it like trying to convey the area’s immense destruction for an audience that wasn’t there?

Price: It’s funny, there was a comment on an initial post I made on the BBC about my being some western journalist who parachutes into places and never spends time in the places I go. While I did fly from NYC 48 hours after the tsunami inundated Tohoku, I ended up staying here for months on end making over 20 trips to the region over about three years. Whether it’s Kosovo or Haiti or Sierra Leone, I’ve always tried to get as close to populations under great stress as possible to tell their stories as accurately as possible.

Upon my arrival I did, of course, cover the funerals, tears and hardship. It’s what was happening and the story of Unknown Spring began in bleak times, in the midst of immense destruction, as you put it. But there was a sense of strength and kindness amongst people here, too. That touched me greatly, representing a much deeper element to convey.

Quite the opposite of parachuting in, I decided to stay for the long haul because I find people here graceful, strong, and elegant during the most ugly of times. Having covered so many disasters in my life, I’ve found that they reveal a society’s soul and true nature. In the hardest of times people keep what is the most essential — the rest gets thrown away. What I found here was that people became even more gracious and caring than they would have been in their day-to-day lives. In the end, it’s that spirit that I wanted to convey. Those are the characteristics that I wanted to come to define the people of Tohoku. These are strong, caring people, much more than victims.

Filmmaker: What caused you to choose this format rather than a traditional linear documentary?

Price: At first I thought of this project as a kind of collage or a set of boxes that could be opened. Once opened, there would be stories in the boxes that came in all different shapes and sizes. We largely stayed true to that idea, which I’m quite proud of.

From a technical point of view, I had so much content: stills, video, audio, words I wanted to use. The web is terrific in implementing many elements all into one place. I’m not a fan of using stills and video together, but I do think they can complement each other. I loved putting all of these elements into a box where a viewer can pick and choose what and when they want to see it.

With my good friend and collaborator Visakh Menon we started thinking about how to compartmentalize these boxes while giving the viewer an option to enter at her/his choosing and then suggesting a path based on a timeline to follow. Over time I got to liking this free form of storytelling and found it a great liberation from the traditional constrains of newspaper and online coverage. In the end this project is about storytelling, which I’ve always felt more comfortable with anyway.

Filmmaker: In your printed text on the website you opted for a first-person voice; to what extent is this a personal essay project as well as a journalistic portrait of the tsunami’s aftermath?

Price: In my time with the New York Times and other news outlets I practiced photojournalism in the way it’s intended, as impersonal observation, but I never felt comfortable working that way. When working as a photojournalist there’s so much emphasis on reporting “objective truth” that I think deeper meanings and deeper truths that reveal people’s true nature are missed. If it were only about reporting the objective truth then this most human of situations would have read like a technical manual from Ikea. That’s the absolute last thing I wanted. Working in Yuriage, I wanted to go deeper than superficial facts and convey a more emotive truth, something that makes you feel the people and situation and makes you think about the important things in life.

As for the use of first person, in the end I felt the only way to truly convey what happened in Tohoku was to include my voice. In the end, I’m the one telling the story and my experience played a role in that. I spent hour after hour walking through the devastation and meeting people, sharing meals and aftershocks with them. I became deeply engrained in the community and so could only tell it with my own voice.

Filmmaker: How did some of this work relate to your previous filmmaking experience? I’m thinking of things like the sound recordings on Chapter 2, “Aftermath Soundscape,” or the interactive map in Chapter 1, “Erasure.”

Price: I started out making Super 8 shorts in high school, continued on with 16mm and hi 8 video in college. At heart I’m a filmmaker. Along with Jamie Wellford of Newsweek we formed an evening of slideshows called SeenUnseen. At that time I was starting to gather sound for my own projects and then started producing slideshows for others. My roots in film were re-emerging and that’s now come back full force; I’m now working mainly as a filmmaker.

When I’m in a place, whether it’s witnessing the recent protests in Istanbul (I’m working on a long-term piece about those, an initial post published on the BBC) or here in Japan, I’m always trying to recreate that environment, or at least key aspects of it ending in giving the viewer an immersive experience.

When I embark on a project, sound design is at the top of my list of concerns. It’s easy to make images, but if you don’t have good sound it’s all over — nobody will sit through a piece with grating sound. Ideally the “Memory” and “Erasure “shorts are meant to be watched in theaters with good sound systems because I want the viewer to be transported by the sound, taken through the landscape on a sonic journey that encompass all the harmony and dissonance that make up the world I witnessed.

For the record, “Memory” actually was not recorded with very good equipment (5dMKII), but because it’s so minimal I think I managed to get away with it, thus conveying the quiet subtleties in that gymnasium.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your production, postproduction, and coding crew.

Price: This project was essentially produced with a two-person team. Additionally, I got a lot of help from so many generous people in Tohoku who provided transportation, a place to sleep, and some booze at the end of some very long days.

When I was in the field for Unknown Spring, it was just me putting all the elements together. I liked working like that. Initially I slept in a displaced persons camp for three weeks where I’d talk with people and just observe life late into the night. I’d wake early and then walk about 10 kilometers to the destroyed Yuriage, with memories from the previous evening fresh in my mind.

In the early days, the long stretch of road leading into town was very quiet. Any sounds that you’d hear stood out. Usually they were eerie things like a creaking rusted gate, static on a radio, or a far away bird or military helicopter. Walking these long distances gave me a good opportunity to meditate on the people and place.

The site came together on three continents and I am extremely lucky to have a partner in Visakh, who’s credited as being a designer and coder on the project. At heart, though, Visakh is a storyteller who uses his coding and design skills to convey what he wants to say, so I never thought of him as a “web developer” but as an equal and essential person in the project. Just as cinematographers and editors play essential roles in traditional film productions, designers and coders play equally important parts in storytelling on the web.

We went through something like 12 versions of the site. We’d throw away most elements in successive versions, but would keep small refinements from each one: a button design here, a piece of technology there.

We were quite strict about what we used and didn’t from a tech point of view. For example, we wanted to use popcorn on this project and designed many pages that employed it. In the end, as much as we love the technology, we didn’t end up using it. Our rule was not to use technology just because it was cool. If it didn’t help convey the story or distracted from it, we got rid of it.

I loved using HTML 5. It’s so open. There are so many ideas floating around out there about how to innovate with it. In the end, every part of Unknown Spring was created with open source technologies.

Filmmaker: How difficult was it to fund the project?

Price: There was no funding for the project except for some picture sales and BBC pieces.

Trip after trip it was the warm spirit of the people of Tohoku who really funded and believed in this project from the beginning. Without the support of the community there would be nothing.

Unknown Spring came together as such an organic thing. I wouldn’t have even known how to write a grant for it because it just kept coming together trip after trip. (Also, there wasn’t the kind of funding of online projects that there is now. In 2011 and 2012, when Unknown Spring was coming together, I think everyone working in this nascent medium was discovering the potentials of what could be done online.) In the end, Unknown Spring was honored at the World Press Photo competition. We were so honored to win amongst Bear 71 and Alama, two projects that we have so much respect for. Those projects were well funded and had robust teams. Winning alongside those teams, after all the heart and challenging circumstances we went though without any funding, felt wonderful.

Filmmaker: What have you done to increase the breadth of your viewership?

Price: We’re always thinking about how to increase audience. Being honored at the World Press Photo competition has given us a great push and nod of recognition. The site is now traveling the world as a part of the WPP global exhibition. Also, it’s been reviewed by quite a few outlets and of course my speaking to you here is a great help. I’m really proud that online docs are now being reviewed as traditional docs have been for years.

From its conception, I envisioned taking Unknown Spring off the screen and bringing it into the physical world. I’m in consultations now on an immersive exhibit in New York that will bring all the elements onto screens and walls in a space in Brooklyn.

Portions of Unknown Spring have screened/exhibited at photo festivals in Turkey and New York. This fall we’ll project in London and be exhibited in Bali, Indonesia. So, it’s very cool to take apart the virtual experience and bring it to audiences in a very immediate way which I find drives a lot of traffic back to the site. In the end, I want to reach audiences in the most immediate way. There’s nothing better than bringing people into an amazing space to do that.

Filmmaker: What are you working on next? How do you hope Unknown Spring will benefit the people of Tohoku?

Price: I’m writing you from a hotel room in Sendai coming off of three weeks of shooting for a film that chronicles the lives of people living amongst the fallout and rising tides. The film will be a poetic exploration of the region.

However, I also feel it’s important to produce some very straightforward pieces as well. To that end, I shot a very cool piece on a reconstruction project designed by MIT’s School of Architecture and have been commissioned by the Nishimiya Fellows Program at Columbia University to make a 5-7 minute short that addresses mental health issues of people living in temporary housing. I continue to sleep in housing for the displaced when I return to Tohoku and am intimately aware of the issues that people are facing. Amongst them is the need for public space. People feel terribly isolated and because of their humility and strength they don’t talk about the issues confronting them, resulting in “lonely deaths” — more to the point, people are committing suicide because they feel such a lack of hope living in their thin metal boxes that they now must call home.

Both the MIT and Columbia projects address the need for public space. Life is tough here. The economy isn’t doing well. People feel personally confined, apart and away from life outside of their temporary housing communities. I hope that the projects I’m shooting will call attention to the need for public and open space. I’m confounded that the government can spend enormous amounts of cash on highways and other construction projects but there are hardly any decent benches or outdoor gathering places for people to feel a little more human in. Hopefully these films will help spread the word and result in getting a little bit of cash for open space, which can result in the saving of lives.