Senbazuru: the lost files

In Japan there is a tradition known as “senbazuru.” According to legend, if one folds 1000 paper cranes they will be granted a single wish by the gods. The cranes are usually strung together and hung outside the outer walls of a temple. As they are exposed to the elements and slowly decay, it is believed that the sacrificed cranes will carry the folder’s wish up to heaven for the gods to receive.

I am an impatient American, so I decided to burn mine.

I folded the cranes over the course of a year, personally creasing each beak and wing myself while steadfastly refusing the help of others. I did this because I wanted to know what it felt like to bring each crane into this world, and then banish it into the next. When I first started this project I was hoping to create a huge fireball in the snow. “This will be so cool” I thought, “there’s no way I could screw this up.” But when the moment of destruction finally came, the little bastards refused to even light – instead they just simmered quietly, laughing at me.


Mr. 1000

This was the beginning of the end. The last sheet of 8″x 8″ inch white printer paper, hand ripped by yours truly, that was destined to become number 1000th of 1000 paper cranes.


Decorated Crane

I knew I wanted to shoot the final product in the snow, so my goal starting out was to specifically fold 1000 white paper cranes. However after making the first 50 or so, I was already bored out of my mind. So I started drawing on the cranes to keep myself interested in the project. Eventually I figured out that when I unfolded a finished crane, the crease marks on the paper make perfect blueprint for how the crane will look in its finished form (actually, I learned this from a TED talk by a contemporary origami artist named Robert J. Lang). By the end of the folding process I probably had close to 100 or so unique “designer” cranes, each one with it’s own style, concept, and idea. The majority of them look awful, but I think this was a more successful one.


Mother with Children

This was one of my earlier ideas for a crane composition. I knew that so long as I had enough cranes in uniform size and shape, that they would look cool no matter how I photographed them. But since I have a habit of second guessing myself, I wanted to double check. So I folded a couple of small cranes from leftover scrap pieces paper, and took a picture of them on my mom’s kitchen counter.


The First Hundred

This was my first pile of 100 cranes. The first hundo were actually the easiest to fold. This is because I was still motivated, but that quickly changed with the more cranes I made. I ended up working on this project sporadically throughout the course of a year. While I tried to maintain a pace of 10 cranes per day (which costs roughly 40 minutes of pain), I rarely had the discipline to keep that pace for an extended period of time. Occasionally I would feel guilty about my lack of progress and self discipline, and would binge by folding up to 30 in a day. This of course, would then be followed by a week of doing nothing. My pace did however, pick up as my deadline started approaching, and I watched the first blizzard of the season roll through with only 50% of cranes I needed. Some people would call this process “procrastination,” I however, prefer to call it “gradual motivation.”


The First Hundred, Storage

Shortly after making the first pile of 100, I realized I needed a way to store the little bastards. Mostly, I kept them in trash bags and left them in miscellaneous piles around my room. While this system started out okey at first, eventually I had to start storing multiple bags in different locations.


Cranes Storage, detail



When I finally hit the first 500 cranes, much in my life had changed. The project (and the guilt associated from its lack of progress) consumed me, so I wanted take a picture commemorating the moment I reached the halfway mark. This was one of the early hits on my blog, where I actually got a response from others about my work. From this point forward, I started to feel like I was actually doing something worthwhile.


Obscured Cranes Triptych
2010There’s a famous fine art photographer from Boston named “Abe Morell” who is known for his mastery of the camera obscura technique. Abe is also one of my photography heroes, and a lot of my work around this time was heavily influenced by him. This technique is the principle which all cameras are based upon. In nature, when small bits of light enter a dark chamber, an inverted image of the scene outside will be projected into the chamber. This technique was popularized by painters during the Renaissance, who used camera obscura to render a true to the eye perspective of their subjects. Here I’ve photographed the cranes with my good friend and fellow photographer Aziz “Oz” Lalani, when he came to visit me in Boston back in 2010.


Crane Summit

When the first snowfall of the season actually came, I was still rushing to finish the folding process. This was photographed shortly after to test out how the cranes would actually look in the snow. The light that day was much harsher than I wanted it to be, so I knew I would have to wait for an overcast day, with fresh snow on the ground to carry out my vision. In short what I needed to do, was to photograph the cranes outside during a blizzard.


Morphing Rock w/Tree

When the day finally came, it was February 2011 during the last big snow storm of the season. I knew that if I didn’t shoot that morning, I would probably have to wait another year to get a second chance. For once, I listened to my mother, and woke up extra early that morning to take these pictures in the freezing cold.




Crane Trunk


Lotus Field





This was it. I knew from the start that this was going to be a one shot deal, you can’t exactly burn 1000 paper cranes twice. No, that picture would cost 2000 paper cranes. All of my 100+ hours of hand cramping, mind numbing folding had lead up to this final moment of truth – and the goddamn paper wouldn’t even light. Even after I dosed the little bastards in lighter fluid, there was little I could do to get my inferno started after the cranes had been snowed on for the last 3 hours. Instead they just laid there in the snow, simmering quietly, laughing at me.



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