Picturing Armageddon #2

There are thought to be just 35 photographs taken in Hiroshima on the day the atom bomb was dropped. 4 photos of the burning city, 5 photos of wounded residents, 1 photo of a truck transporting victims, and 25 photos of the mushroom cloud. In the case of 29 of these photographs, the negatives or prints are preserved in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum or by newspaper companies. The negatives or prints for the remaining 6 photos, cannot be located, though they once appeared in print. 5 of the 35 were taken by Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper.

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Matsushige said:  “The scene I saw through the finder was too cruel. Among the hundreds of injured persons of whom you cannot tell the difference between male and female, there were children screaming ‘It’s hot, it’s hot!’ and infants crying over the body of their mother who appeared to be already dead. I tried to pull myself together by telling myself that I’m a news cameraman, and it is my duty and privilege to take a photograph, even if it is just one, and even if people take me as a devil or a cold-hearted man. I finally managed to press the shutter, but when I looked through the finder for the second time, the object was blurred by tears”.

These are some of the other photographs taken in Hiroshima that day…

A second atomic bomb was used on Nagasaki on 9 August, Japan surrendered on 15 August (see my post Strangely Familiar) and American occupied the country.

hiroshimadddA month after the bomb, the occupying force essentially banned photography in Hiroshima, with a phrase that recalled the polite euphemisms of Japanese edicts, “Nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility”. A number of photographs were confiscated, and the Japanese people themselves saw virtually no depictions of what had happened. The American occupation ended in April 1952 and in August of that year the magazine Asahi Gurafu published a portfolio of photographs of Hiroshima and later photographs taken by Yamahata Yōsuke in Nagasaki the day after it was bombed were published. There were several hours of film footage of nuclear destruction taken by Japanese cameramen in the weeks after the bombing. This was confiscated and not declassified by the U.S. government until the mid-1960s when it was edited into a short documentary called ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki, 1945’.

Precautions against nuclear attack 2The United States Strategic Bombing Survey immediately started a massive photographic undertaking. They forensically documented the destruction. Every building was examined to collect data on the destructive power of the new weapon. This information would be used to investigate how American cities would survive a nuclear attack. There are no people in the photographs. Indeed the injured survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ‘Hibakusha’ and those who would be born afterwards with radiological defects would be shunned by the Japanese and the Americans would be accused of wanting to study the injured more than help them. In 1957 photographer Dōmon Ken published an influential study of the Hibakusha which brought them to the public’s attention.

hiroshima bookA selection of photographs from the survey was discovered in an old trunk that had been left out for rubbish collectors in a suburban street. They were exhibited in 2011 as ‘Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945’ curated by Erin Barnett for the International Centre of Photograph in New York, not far from the Ground Zero of 9/11.


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