A stitched panoramic photograph taken through the glass in a very tall building in Tokyo. Shot on digital. Japan, 2009

The Last Surviving Photograph

Nick Ahrens
5 min readOct 16, 2018

This is it. The one and only photograph from an entire 10-day trip shooting almost day and night both personally and professionally. The ever-present, very scary, very real-life result of losing photographs. Whatever the reason — card lost, drive failure, accidental deletion — this is what remains. It’s not a particularly great photograph. In fact, it’s not even a single image but rather the result of stitching together a bunch of photographs taken from the top of a very tall building. This is pretty evident in the reflections near the top left and right. It’s just a vast collection of complex pixel clusters that make up the garden of structures around the city.

That said, despite not being the model of photographic art, there’s an almost picturebook upside to it. Tokyo Tower stabs the clouds and pops with a fiery red among the gray and green. The organic curve of a highway breaks the boxy buildings to the right and the one on the left slices through the city like a knife. The black and teal monolith center left looks like something out of a cyberpunk book from the early 80’s.

It’s easy to just lose yourself in a photo like this when there simply just aren’t any others to look at.

A crop of the photo showing Tokyo Tower.

In 2009, I was back in Japan for the third time as a journalist for a conference. By this time in my life, the love affair with street photography had taken hold of my heart and didn’t let go (though it almost did, a story for another time). While technically there for a business trip, I would still try to cram as much exploring and photography as possible. Jetlag was like an army drill instructor pushing me to be out and on the streets for very long days and very late nights.

While doing our typical group wander, co-workers and myself, we happened upon a rather large tower with an observation deck. Or were we there for an event? Time has taken that answer away for now. I don’t remember taking this photo but I know myself well enough to rebuild the scene in my head. Huge, panoramic windows. Wide, expansive view. Nice late summer day. Many other tourists likely doing the same. I’ve also done enough of these stitched panoramic photos to see my technique in my head as well. Fire a few from the left first, bump the glass halfway through, start over. This is before the thought would have occurred to minimize light reflection from the interior. And right here is the perfect example of photography’s power — being able to see a single image and construct the rest of the world around it.

A few years ago, I found myself back in Minnesota for a long winter holiday and figured it was the best time to be locked in a room sorting tens of thousands of photographs from the years of traveling and shooting prior. It was during one of these long sessions that I realized every single photo, save for one, from the last trip I had taken to Japan was gone. What else was missing? What moments were now gone? Were they my moments to even lose or did I fail the people, places, and world in those photographs? I honestly didn’t used to care. Just shrug and move on to the next photo. But things change and so did the perspective and my curiosity about those photos is stronger than ever nearly a decade later.

Hyperbolic stories of disaster situations and why you’re doing things wrong can be found all over the internet. Though I suppose a sunnier way of looking at that would be there are great tutorials, guides, and tips aplenty on how to keep your photos safe. The point of this was never to teach a technical class on proper archiving and backup techniques. The lesson here about physical preservation is crystal clear. But what else was lost with these photos? Beyond the files themselves?

There’s an obvious argument that this story is about much more than just some old lost photos. The original plan was to tie everything into a clear life lesson that could be applied to photography or whatever else it slotted cleanly into. I have no doubt that some zen master would even flip this right back on to me and blow my mind with a lesson inside of a lesson. Instead, I’m going to keep what I’ve learned close to the chest on this one and let you take as much or little as you want from it. But I will still remind you to take care of and support the things important to you.

Coincidently, before starting this new column, I bought tickets to Japan for this December. You can bet I’ll be thinking about the last remaining photo from a trip nearly a decade previous as I make my way through the streets with a camera in my hand.

Have you lost photos before? Many of us have. But I’m curious, have you lost any that you truly wish you hadn’t? What was it?



Nick Ahrens

Fine art photography and growing up. Executive Producer at Night School / Netflix. Former journalist turned former art pusher. @robotpants on Insta/Twitter.