War Photos We Must Never See Again

By: Greg Mitchell

Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun in Japan, can rest in peace, at least as much as anyone who lived through an atomic catastrophe can.

Ten days ago, seven visitors from Japan visited E&P while in New York for the opening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty sessions at the United Nations. In this delegation were: a peace activist I met in Nagasaki more than 20 years ago; a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic attack who provided some narration in a film I worked on recently called “Original Child Bomb”; and Shigeko Sasamori, one of the fabled Hiroshima Maidens, young women horribly scarred by that bomb who were brought to the United States by Norman Cousins and others for surgery in the 1950s.

Also in the group were a reporter from the Chugoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s major daily, itself a survivor of the atomic bomb. Early last week, the two men came back to my office on a mission. They placed on my desk a photocopy of a spread in an Asian edition of Newsweek, showing several Japanese civilians rushing down an unidentified road with a raging fire behind him. The caption declared that the photo was taken in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Why were the men–Koichi Okada and Ushio Matumoto– concerned about this? For decades, their former colleague Matsushige has been identified as the only person who managed to take pictures in Hiroshima on that fateful day, or at least the only one whose photos have survived. I met Matsushige during my stay in Hiroshima and have profiled him for a half-dozen publications, from Aperture to The Washington Post, so I knew where they were coming from (quite literally).

And I recognized the photo in Newsweek. If memory serves, I came across it about 20 years ago, in much reduced form, in the American edition of Newsweek or another newsweekly. I told them that I recalled checking it out at the time and coming away feeling that there was something fishy about the photo, or the labeling of it, but could not remember much beyond that.

So, as they looked on, I turned to the Web to try to solve the mystery. The photo in Newsweek came from FPG, the Freelance Photographers Guild, which I knew had been sold a few years ago. A little research found that FPG had been absorbed by Getty Images. A search of Hiroshima images at Getty quickly brought me to a thumbnail of the “August 6” photo, and opening it brought the information that it was part of the massive Hulton Archive.

But I also came across Getty’s own caption for the picture, which is, to put it mildly, far from definitive about the place and date: “People hurry past a fire burning in the wake of an atomic explosion, probably in Hiroshima, Japan, August 1945.”

Somehow the “probably” was dropped by Newsweek (and god knows how many other publications). Looking at the photo with that in mind, you realize it could have been taken anywhere at any time in the midst of a fire. So anyone tempted to use the photo to mark the 60th anniversary of the atomic attacks this summer should think twice, or three times.

A few hours later, I talked to a Getty rep who dug out the paltry documentation the photo agency inherited with the photo. This added nothing except that, in their records, the photo was marked with a symbol suggesting that, perhaps, it was shot off a TV (perhaps it was part of a documentary film).

My Japanese visitors were, of course, pleased to know that Matsushige’s place in history was secure, and so was I, not because uniqueness is what matters in this case (given the enormity of the atomic tragedy) but the fact that he had allowed his photos to be reproduced without charge for many years to promote anti-nuclearism.

Unfortunately, the two men then informed me that Matushige had passed away earlier this year, at the age of 92. So in tribute, here is a re-print of a column I wrote about him for E&P last April, which was titled “A Unique War Photographer”:

There are dozens of brilliant war photographers, but there is only one Yoshito Matsushige.

A combination of factors, from an upcoming movie premiere to press coverage of the war in Iraq, has me thinking about him these days. For many years, Matsushige, 92, worked for a major metro daily called Chugoku Shimbun. He may not have been the greatest war photographer ever, but he is the most unique: He took the only photographs in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was detonated over the city, killing 150,000 people.

Photos of war are very much with us today, with fierce debates over whether we are seeing too much of one kind (Americans getting mutilated or strung up on bridges) and not enough of another (civilians dying in Fallujah and other cities). The next issue of E&P, due on April 26, features numerous striking war photos, from current Pulitzer Prize winners to a collection of World War II photos from The Associated Press.

But images of war, and World War II, are also on my mind thanks to the world premiere of a movie for which I served as adviser, “Original Child Bomb,” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on May 2, where it is in competition for a top documentary prize. The festival committee calls it “a devastating meditation on the human costs of war.” Matsushige’s photos appear in “Original Child Bomb.”

On Aug. 6, 1945, Matsushige wandered around Hiroshima for 10 hours, carrying one of the few cameras that survived the atomic bombing and two rolls of film with twenty-four possible exposures. This was no ordinary photo opportunity. He lined up one gripping shot after another but he could only push the shutter seven times.

When he was done he returned to his home and developed the pictures in the most primitive way, since every dark room in the city, including his own, had been destroyed. Under a star-filled sky, with the landscape around him littered with collapsed homes and the center of Hiroshima still smoldering in the distance, he washed his film in a radiated creek and hung it out to dry on the burned branch of a tree.

Five of the seven images came out, and they are all the world will ever know of what Hiroshima looked like on that day. Only Matsushige knows what the 17 photos he didn’t take would have looked like.

Two of his pictures have been widely reprinted in magazines and books. In one, a ragged line of bomb victims sit along the side of Miyuki Bridge, two miles from ground zero, legs folded to their chests. It’s hard to tell if it is torn clothing or skin that hangs from them in tatters. No one cries out. They simply stare at what lies across the bridge: a tornado of flame and smoke rushing toward the suburbs. The second picture is a tighter version of the first, focusing on a policeman and a few school girls standing in the center.

All of the figures in the two photos have their backs to the photographer and are staring at the approaching holocaust. Although many in these images no doubt died later, neither of these pictures shows a single corpse. Yet the two photos capture the horror of the atomic bombing better than any panoramic image of twisted buildings and rubble. Perhaps that is because the people in Matsushige’s pictures are feeling more than the lingering effects of the blast — they are still experiencing the bomb itself. “Little Boy” has not yet finished with them or their city.

The terror evident in the way the victims are standing or sitting (with their backs to the camera we cannot read their expressions) in these grainy black and white photographs says more about the human response to the monstrous unknown than any Hollywood recreation. And because the photographer has the same perspective as his victims, we see what they see. We are on that road to Hiroshima, three hours after the bomb fell, staring into the black whirlwind. The pictures are so affecting because ever since that day, all of us have, in a sense, been standing on that road to Hiroshima, alive but anxious, and peering into the distance at the smoke and firestorm approaching but not yet arrived.

When I interviewed Matsushige almost 20 years ago in a conference room at his old newspaper — a small man, dapper in white shoes — he explained that he could not take more photos that day because “it was so atrocious” and he was afraid burned and battered people “would be enraged if someone took their picture.” He tried to capture more images but he could not “muster the courage” to press the trigger.

A few weeks after the bombing, the American military confiscated all of the post-bomb newspaper prints and Japanese newsreel footage, “but they didn’t ask for the negatives,” Matsushige said, grinning like a cat. These were the pictures that caused a stir worldwide when they appeared in Life magazine seven years later, breaking a press ban. No photographic images of Nagasaki taken on Aug. 9 are known to have survived.

Did he wish, then, that he had captured 17 additional images on Aug. 6 — 17 further arguments for the abolition of nuclear weapons? “I’m often asked that,” he replied, looking down at his skinny hands and rubbing his palms together. “Now we see so many nuclear weapons still in the world,” he finally said, looking up. “Given that, you’d think I’d wish I’d taken more. They could be very useful. Sometimes I think I should have gathered my courage and taken more photos, but at other times I feel I did all I could do. I could not endure taking any more pictures that day. It was too heartbreaking.”

With that, Matsushige bid farewell, packed up his belongings, bowed deeply to the interviewer and left the room, carrying in his arms a portfolio of pictures that are utterly unique, and must remain so.

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