Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Design and destruction

The text I'm laying out mentions seeing the body of the old man who didn't escape as his house fell on him and the tsunami overwhelmed him, his house, his town. And there's the picture from the photographer who was accompanying the journalist. I hadn't really thought of using an image of one of the almost 30,000 dead, and most media outlets haven't, so I check with the editors. (We decide direct relevance means we can, but nothing should identify the man.)

As part of my freelance work, I layout the small monthly in-house magazine for the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. And what has been a diminishing role for foreign correspondents in Japan, as Japan slipped from journalistic priority, is suddenly a role presenting exactly what you've probably been reading – the FCCJ's members are those who write for The Independent, Irish Times, Guardian and Telegraph in the UK, for TIME in the US, for worldwide press, TV and radio etc. And what is a bread-and-butter design job (always welcome to a freelancer), I suddenly want to make the best issue I can.

And there's the rub. I look through images to choose the "best", the most expressive, the most revealing, the most apposite: how do you design for disaster? The answer, I know, is to let the images speak for themselves, and bring out the best in the writing. Yet this is the first time for me to layout for a trauma so close to home. When I worked at the Telegraph in the UK, I worked in the commercial department. I had a friend who was an editor on the picture desk in the news section, and he spoke, during one conflict, of the distressing nature of studying a stream of unedited images that he looked at day in and day out. For most picture editors and designers, such disasters are "distant", and only the journalists are at the coal face.

This time it seems so near. And it's strange to be trying to select images to make the best looking issue I can – the most expressive, most simple, as a memorial for the victims, and, in this case, also appropriate for the experience of the writers.

So I find myself improving layout and selecting images to design disaster into … what, dignity? But what a choice: is the frozen dead dog outlined in snow too plainly emotive? Has the innundated train left mangled away from the tracks been seen too much? Is the decaying hand coming out from under the house too bleak?

Just over three weeks ago I was holding on to my computer to stop it vibrating off the table while bits and pieces fell off the narrow shelf above on which they were loosely propped. Downstairs another loose glass ornament smashed and a pile of books was falling over. A speaker in the home recording studio across the corridor fell off the keyboard. We live in an electric world and our livelihoods depend on working computers! Good, I thought about 30 seconds into the quake, the house isn't going to fall down. But as the quake continued, I thought that its sheer persistence might achieve what mere strength here in Tokyo was not going to.

But no – it was "the big one" but we were totally undamaged in Tokyo. and subsequently only inconvenienced. First we took in the scale elsewhere in the country and were unnerved by blackouts and potential food shortages, and by further quakes and aftershocks (more than 880 after 3 weeks, all above magnitude 4 – and more than 50 above magnitude 6). Secondly, the individual stories of death and survival from the media and journalist friends made it all the more human. Thirdly, and during the third week after the quake, Tokyo returned cautiously to near "normality", despite the continuing distress of the north east. Here I am in what could be a sort of fourth stage after the tsunami: now it's time to look closely again, and select the best images to express what those elsewhere, though close by, really suffered and now endure. And in a very, very minor way, lay out a small memorial to all the events.

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