Many of us have lost an object that we value — a piece of jewelry, a childhood trinket or a favorite jacket. Against the odds, we hope that somehow our belongings will find their way back home. When Ikuo Yokoyama received a call that his Harley Davidson motorcycle was discovered washed up on the shores of Canada after being swept away during the Japanese tsunami, he was absolutely shocked. Yokoyama, who lost three family members during the tragedy, was contacted by the Harley Davidson company, who promised to restore the bike and return it to him.
In his incredibly moving documentary Objects and Memory, filmmaker Jonathan Fein focuses on objects that survived tragic events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, showing how a mundane, ordinary thing can be transformed into a repository for memories. The film features interviews with people like Mike Telesca, an off-duty fireman who rushed to the World Trade Center to offer assistance. While making his escape, the South Tower collapsed, trapping Telesca and three other firefighters. Telesca survived, but when he regained consciousness, he realized he had lost his helmet. In Fein’s documentary, Telesca holds his tattered helmet, which was eventually found and returned to him. “A helmet means a lot to a fireman, and it took a couple of months to get this one back to me,” he says. “It kind of sums up your whole career — a lot of pride goes into your helmet — and it’s probably the only piece that I cared about getting back.”
Telesa’s story was just one of many that developed in the aftermath of 9/11, as sanitation workers sifted through 8 million tons of debris to recover objects. Wedding rings, wallets, toy cars and other items were saved, and returned to families if possible. ”What’s interesting about objects is that they help us tell stories…but without a story, an object is meaningless,” says Fein in an interview with Tulsa Public Radio. Fain explains how historians and sanitation workers had to shift their thinking when dealing with the objects recovered in the weeks after 9/11: “Well traditionally, [historians] can’t tell if something is important until 50 years go by. But in our fast-paced society, they knew that whatever they didn’t save would be thrown away.” Suddenly, mundane objects like office papers, filing cabinets and staplers were coveted by some of the survivors, who sought a tangible and personal memorial of their experience.
When an object is lost then unexpectedly found, it’s nothing short of a miracle. “I think it was Ed Linenthal who expressed it best: ‘Objects that have traveled through space and time make us feel that we are traveling through time and space,’” explains Fein. Yokoyama’s motorcycle is no longer just a bike — it’s a poignant representation of survival against the odds and the unexpected capacity to endure.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.