Hiroshima and the power of pictures

By Hugh Gusterson | August 5, 2009

Sixty-four years ago this week the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. Whether we endorse or condemn the bombings, how do we grasp the enormity of the destruction that befell those two unfortunate Japanese cities? The last survivors of the bombings are passing into history, taking with them the power of their living witness. But for me, the full force of the bombings has always come from pictures more than words.

There is, of course, the iconic image of the mushroom cloud rising above Hiroshima, and the famous aerial picture of an almost entirely flattened city. But both pictures have a distanced and abstract quality, bereft as they are of people. As aerial shots, both pictures also embody the point of view of those who dropped the Bomb more than those who experienced its destructive power close-up.

The naïveté about the physical effects of nuclear weapons after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deformed public debates about nuclear weapons policy in the years after World War II just as our ignorance today about the full range of detainee abuse in Iraq is inhibiting a fully candid and informed debate about that war.”

To grasp the victims’ experience, you have to move to the ground and zoom in. Images like this incongruously formal portrait of mother and child use urban destruction as a backdrop to evoke the existential isolation of survivors stranded in a ruined landscape. This image also reminds us that, with most adult men fighting at the front, the majority of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were women and children.

Harder to look at, pictures like this show what the Bomb did to human bodies.

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag describes the best war pictures as “the visual equivalent of sound bites,” as they have the ability to condense complex issues with great persuasive force. Sontag points out that pictures of the victims of violence don’t always evoke sympathy. Southern whites in an earlier age, for example, often reacted to pictures of black lynching victims with glee, keeping them as visual trophies. But pictures of war victims, especially if they were noncombatants or were hurt in ways that violate the norms of war, also have tremendous power to incite shame, disgust, anger and conflict in a way that mere verbal accounts do not. Sontag points to the importance of two famous pictures from Vietnam in crystallizing American disillusion with that war: One is Huynh Cong Ut’s picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running in agony from a napalm attack, and the other is Eddie Adams’s picture of a Vietcong suspect, handcuffed, being executed on the street by the South Vietnamese police.

It is the potentially incendiary quality of war pictures that led U.S. occupying authorities to censor pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war. The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett had his pictures of Hiroshima confiscated and was then expelled from Japan. The Japanese photojournalist Yoshito Matsushige survived the atomic bombing and took the only photographs of Hiroshima survivors that day, only to have them confiscated until 1952. Akira Iwasaki filmed the aftermath of the bombings, but his footage was seized and taken to the United States, not to be returned to Japan until 1968. For many years the sole images of the bombings in Japan were watercolor paintings by survivors. Even these could have great power, as demonstrated in a class from my days teaching at MIT when a guest lecture on the paintings by John Dower, a historian of Japan, caused one student to faint. (For more on the censorship of photos of the aftereffects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, see “Hiroshima: The Lost Photographs.”)

Fifty years after the fact, it became evident that the original photographs of Hiroshima still retained their incendiary power. Even after they had succeeded in neutering most of the commentary by professional historians for the Smithsonian Museum’s planned exhibit on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, veterans groups and right-wing pundits were incensed that the museum was still planning to exhibit photographs from Hiroshima, as well as a Japanese schoolgirl’s charred lunchbox. Rather than allow this, they insisted the exhibit be shrunken down to this: the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first bomb, and a modest plaque about what it did.

The sixty-fourth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a good time to reflect on these issues since this is the year that President Barack Obama, following in General Douglas MacArthur’s footsteps, decided that it would serve no purpose to make public another round of images of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq. Some of the images reportedly show rape of prisoners, sexual abuse of minors, and the frank physical violence with which some detainees have been treated.

President Obama is doubtless correct that the public circulation of such pictures would incite a further wave of revulsion against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, possibly endangering American lives, just as General MacArthur was surely correct that the publication of pictures from Hiroshima would have incited criticism of the United States and nuclear weapons. But historians have noted the costs of MacArthur’s censorship regime: the pall of silence about the Bomb that it took Japan decades to shake off; the inability of survivors to get medical information about their condition, given the censorship of medical journal articles on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the U.S. public’s ignorance about what was done in their name in Japan in August 1945. The resulting naïveté about the physical effects of nuclear weapons deformed public debates about nuclear weapons policy in the years after World War II just as our ignorance today about the full range of detainee abuse in Iraq is inhibiting a fully candid and informed debate about that war.

If past is prologue, we will, one day, see the pictures Obama has kept from us, just as we eventually came to see the grainy black-and-white images of unspeakable suffering from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He can delay–but he cannot prevent–the materialization of this visual truth. Maybe there is in that cache an image we haven’t yet seen that has the power to become as iconic as the napalmed girl in Vietnam, to become the visual soundbite that encapsulates the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Many years ago I was talking with a retired nuclear weapons designer in his living room when he went to his study to get this picture of a Hiroshima survivor to show me. When I looked, I instinctively winced, imagining the pain of those burns and thinking of countless more people with burns like that if nuclear weapons were used again. But he saw something different in the picture. He talked dispassionately about the pattern of the burns. The woman had been wearing a black-and-white blouse and hadn’t been burned at all where the blouse was white and reflected the heat. The picture for him was evidence that simple precautions could protect people if nuclear weapons were used again.

We looked at the same picture and saw different things, but the picture gave us something to talk about. That’s what pictures do. They evoke feelings. They convey information. They provoke different responses. They incite conversations. And they allow us to feel as if we were there. That’s why museums and history books need to keep showing pictures of what was done in our name in Hiroshima. And that’s why, before too long, we should see more pictures of what was done in our name in Iraq.

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