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Google Street View as art — and service

Graphic artist uses the medium to try to help tsunami-ravaged Japanese town

August 27, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - A graphic designer who lives in Saranac Lake is selling images he's composed of tsunami-ravaged communities in Japan to raise funds for ongoing relief efforts there.

Aaron Hobson also plans to travel to Japan himself next spring to help hands-on with the cleanup and rebuilding.

"If I can just help one or two families in a small town, to help make things a little easier for them as they rebuild, that's my goal," Hobson said.

Article Photos

This image, titled “Sweeping Man,” is one of 18 created by Saranac Lake artist Aaron Hobson using Google’s Street View program, showing areas in Japan that were devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Hobson is selling the images to support relief and rebuilding efforts in Japan.
(Image provided)

Hobson gained international publicity last year for his Google Street View Project, a blend of his artistic talents and Google's cutting-edge technology. He spent hundreds of hours searching images from Google's Street View program, which provides street-level views from around the world taken by a fleet of camera-equipped vehicles, and stitched them together to create a panoramic image of a moment in time.

When Hobson heard Google recently re-visited the Japanese cities, towns and village's that were devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, he spent hours going through the images online.

"I was on it for a couple weeks, a good couple hundred miles of all the towns that were battered," he said. "The impact is just overwhelming and powerful. I saw the pictures from when it happened more than a year ago, and I've seen video and documentaries. But for some reason, going 10 feet at a time, street by street, was much more impactful."

One of the images that struck him the most, Hobson said, was of an old man sweeping a dirt road. On either side of him are the foundations of buildings swept away by the tsunami. Huge piles of debris are visible in the distance against the backdrop of lush, green mountains.

"I think it symbolizes the battle they're going through trying to rebuild," Hobson said. "The task is about impossible as that little old man bent over, sweeping the street in what's left of his town.

"In the places that were completely washed away, there's specialty crews working with heavy machinery. There's piles of debris separated by household, wood, cars and so on, and some of these piles are four to five square city blocks in size and five to six stories tall. There was one town, its footprint was probably the size of Plattsburgh, and there's nothing there. Just the foundations of the houses that were once there.

"On the outskirts you could see the villages that weren't washed away but were consumed by all the mud and debris. That's where a lot of the volunteer work is going on."

It wasn't just seeing the devastation up close that led Hobson to want to do something to help. He was also struck by how familiar the small communities seemed to him.

"The thing that really grabbed me about it was there were many homes just like ours, in little mountain villages," he said.

Hobson has created 18 prints of the places he visited using Google Street View, each of which is a composite of two to three different images. He said the photos, including one called "Sweeping Man," show both the beauty of the region and the destruction wrought by the tsunami.

Hobson is selling the limited edition, 10-by-20 inch prints for $25 each. The money he raises will pay for a trip he plans to take to Japan's Tohoku region, one of the hardest-hit areas, to volunteer for a group called It's Not Just Mud. The group, on its website, says it's a "nonprofit volunteer organization specializing in disaster relief, grass-roots support and rehabilitation of disaster affected individuals and small businesses."

Hobson plans to travel to Tohoku in the spring for roughly a week. He said 100 percent of any money he makes beyond his travel expenses will be donated to the group.

"I know seven to 10 days isn't much more than a microscopic dent in the whole scheme of things, but to be able to help one or two families, every bit helps," he said. "This is going to be a long-term recovery for them. The mayor of Tohoku has said it's going to take them about 10 years to clean up and rebuild. So I'm just trying to raise awareness that they have a lot more to do."

After 10-hour days shoveling mud and debris, Hobson plans to take pictures in his free time. He said he'd like to revisit the same area again, possibly each year for the next 10 years, and document the rebuilding effort.



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