Photographing Australian-occupied Hiroshima
Atomic-bombed Hiroshima, Maria Tumarkin observes in Traumascapes, has become ‘the lens through which other sites of destruction and death can be witnessed and remembered’.1 Tumarkin is suggesting Hiroshima’s reverberating significance as a set of images against which other tragedies are measured in the public imagination; she is also cannily implying the importance of the camera as the primary contemporary tool to represent and communicate massive devastation. In 2015, the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that heralded the nuclear age, it is worth reconsidering the role of photography in documenting an unprecedented level of destruction for which existing language seemed inadequate, and a sight that reduced early visitors to stunned silence.2 One visual record of Hiroshima that illustrates the power of photography (and its limitations) is that produced by the Australian men and women of ‘BCOF’, the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in postwar Japan—relentless sightseers and habitual photographers who rarely ventured anywhere without their cameras.3
Japan was in ruins when the first Australians arrived in early 1946 to participate in the American-led military occupation. Sixty of its cities had been pulverised and incinerated by a saturation bombing campaign that included the prodigious use of napalm. The postwar homeless numbered up to 9 million; people were dying of malnutrition; orphans scrounged in gutted buildings and blackened streets. Prostitution was the only thing to thrive in the wreckage, catering to an influx of foreign troops intent on enjoying the spoils of war. The traditional Japan of temples and teahouses that had attracted generations of Western photographers was horribly scarred. But of all the devastated sites of a devastated country, it was Hiroshima that exercised a special fascination for the Australians.
Partly this was due to proximity, for the Australian contingent was largely based in Hiroshima Prefecture, in the port of Kure just down the Inland Sea coast from the devastated city, and in nearby camps and residential enclaves where many servicemen lived with their wives and children from 1947. The remote and ravaged BCOF sphere of influence in western Honshu was the dubious gift of the Occupation’s commander, General Douglas MacArthur, comfortably ensconced in central Tokyo across from the palace of the ruler he had effectively usurped, Emperor Hirohito. But there was also the pull of a place that was both morally troubling and seductive as a portent of a dangerous new epoch.
Shirley Hazzard, who visited Japan as a child a year after the bombing, writes in her novel The Great Fire (2003) that Australian members of the Occupation exhibited ‘the unease of conquerors: the unseemliness of finding themselves a few miles from Hiroshima’.4 Nonetheless the nuclear notoriety of the place immediately dubbed ‘The Atomic City’ made it a must-see on the tour of duty, and the Australians visited in numbers, either individually and informally or on group tours organised by the military, which advertised the opportunities for taking pictures of the destruction.5 They travelled to the place heedless of the risk, for the official guidebook Know Japan provided to the troops never once mentioned the word ‘radiation’.
By May 1947, when the English-born Australian illusionist Maurice Rooklyn travelled to Japan to entertain BCOF servicemen, a tourism industry was already in evidence in Hiroshima. Bomb debris was being peddled to tourists, mostly household items remoulded in the tremendous heat caused by the explosion. Australians were enthusiastic clients, buying (or looting) a piece of Ground Zero to take back home. Back in Australia, Rooklyn had billed himself the ‘Human Target’ for his most famous theatrical feat, in which he conjured to ‘catch’ a bullet fired directly at him. In Hiroshima he tried something rather less ambitious, having himself photographed in a field of rubble, surveying local devastation (see Figure 1).
It is not known whether the ‘Human Target’ realised the irony of situating himself at a site where tens of thousands were summarily killed one bright summer morning. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was surely no illusion. What the photograph does evoke is the element of spectatorship of the Australians in Japan, and the uneasy combination of voyeurism and self-consciousness with which they first apprehended the tremendous damage inflicted on a country for which some still harboured a deep dislike, verging on hatred.
But the Australian photographs reveal something else, not just about the death of a city but also its rebirth. Equally importantly, they provide a self-reflexive view of the way Australians perceived postwar Japan, and the evolution of attitudes towards the wartime enemy. Photographing Hiroshima, more than any other place in the country, was the means through which they mediated the ethical and perceptual confusions of a military occupation that was part punitive and part exercise in reconstruction.
The very first foreign reportage from atomic Hiroshima, that of the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett in early September 1945, inadvertently indicates the problem that was to beset representation of the bombing—its indescribability. Striving to convey the colossal material damage, Burchett wrote of a city that looked ‘as though a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence’.6 This is a revealingly anachronistic metaphor for the technological obliteration caused by one small bomb, aptly codenamed ‘Little Boy’, containing the body weight in enriched uranium of a jockey-sized man. In the Australian spring of 1945 the first peace-time issue of Meanjin (then called the Meanjin Papers) also selected an old-fashioned image to indicate the sense of historical severance occasioned by the use of nuclear weapons. The bomb, it editorialised, had ‘severed the old world from the new with guillotine-like decisiveness’.7 In the early days the bombing literally was indescribable. The Hiroshima daily newspaper the Chugoku Shinbun did not possess the movable type for ‘atomic bomb’ or ‘radioactivity’, and hence could not properly report on what had taken place in its own back yard.8
In distant Australia, relief at the end of the war was tempered by inarticulate trepidation at the tremendous new source of power science had unleashed. A couple of days after the destruction of Hiroshima, and the day before an even more powerful weapon wrecked Nagasaki, the Brisbane Courier Mail contemplated the atomic bomb. ‘Even scientists’, an editorial remarked, were ‘lost for words’ as they considered its magnitude. If scientists couldn’t describe it, who could? Australian members of the BCOF advance party were struck dumb by Hiroshima upon their arrival in the country in February 1946. The men ‘had no word to describe it, which is unusual for Australian soldiers’, said a brief report of this first landfall in postwar Japan, published in the Melbourne daily broadsheet the Argus.9
Photography filled this representational vacuum. The Argus report is dwarfed by photographs taken by the newspaper’s staff photographer. These include a panorama of the extensive damage in the centre of the city, highlighting the skeletal structure of what was to become the iconic symbol of both Hiroshima and the nuclear age, the so-called ‘A-bomb Dome’, another wide-angle shot of the heavily bombed harbour at Kure, and a scene of a genial Australian soldier interacting with Japanese women and children. In the publicly circulated photography of the early days of the Occupation, the military might of the conquering force was balanced by an imagery of benignity. The Allies had won the war with technological efficiency, and were now rebuilding Japan and helping it mend its militaristic ways.
In pictures often supplied by the army’s Directorate of Public Relations or taken by newspapermen still enlisted in the services, early Australian press photography contrived to make the Australian ‘Diggers’ look good, and so convince a doubting public that MacArthur’s project to remake Japan was both worthy and appropriate. In Figure 2, from the extensive Argus online collection held by the State Library of Victoria, a group of crisply uniformed Diggers stroll past the A-bomb Dome with a conqueror’s self- assurance. The symbol of the city’s nuclear destruction serves as a decorative backdrop; the Australians’ eyes are fixed firmly ahead. Images like this, along with those of inquisitive soldier-tourists rummaging through the rubble for atomic souvenirs or traipsing through the wreckage of ruined shrines, suggest a force free of self-doubt or moral qualms.10
The atomic bombs that ended the war were greeted with relief: a Gallup Poll of Australians taken in September 1945 revealed that 83 per cent thought their use justified.11 While there was widespread alarm at the development of nuclear weapons and concern that no Australian city in future would ever be safe, there was little pity for the Japanese. As further revelations came to light about the manifest iniquities of Japan’s military during the war, the country was still widely excoriated. In September 1949, four years after the war’s end, MacArthur issued an order relaxing the (largely ignored) policy of ‘non-fraternisation’ between the occupier and the occupied, and encouraging instead ‘friendly interest and guidance toward the Japanese’. This edict challenged the priorities and predilections of the Australian military command, which continued to regard the Japanese as a conquered enemy. Being ‘kind to Japs’, as one press report put it, was still unconscionable.12
The landscape of devastation surveyed in these early published photographs is pleasantly free of signs of human suffering. This was both calculated and shameless. Anxious not to disturb what it called ‘public tranquillity’, MacArthur’s GHQ imposed a strict code of press censorship in September 1945, as one of its first disingenuous acts to democratise totalitarian Japan. This systematically silenced the hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had lived to tell the tale. Years later, the Hiroshima poet Sadako Kurihara expressed her frustration: ‘We were not allowed to write about the atomic bomb during the Occupation. We were not even allowed to say that we were not allowed to write about the atomic bomb.’13
During the first year of the Occupation, the portrayal of the misery inflicted by the bombings was strictly the privilege of the foreigner, and could only be communicated to foreign audiences. In October 1946, a month after MacArthur slapped the home ban on Japanese testimony, the Australasian Post published in full John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a 30,000-word reconstruction of the A-bombing written from the viewpoint of survivors, which had first appeared in the New Yorker that August, in an entire issue devoted to it. The Australasian Post supplemented Hersey’s powerful narrative with graphic photographs. Unfortunately, an aerial shot of bomb-blasted Hiroshima is counterpointed with a full page advertisement for Australia’s leading winemaker, Penfold’s, with a nurse offering a seated gentleman a glass of red beneath the legend, ‘Nature’s blood transfusion’.14
In Japan, MacArthur’s ban applied to the publication of photographs as well as the written word. Ostensibly it was latent Japanese resentment that the Occupation wanted to contain. But there was another, deeper reason—the prestige of the United States as a beacon of enlightened humanity was at stake. The home public had been bombarded with horrifying pictures of the Nazi death camps in the months after the end of the war in Europe. Documentary images from Japan of burned corpses or massed remains would not do. The US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had sounded the alarm before August 1945, in response to the relentless firebombing of Japanese cities, confiding in his diary that June that he did not want to have ‘the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities’.15
Accordingly, the publication of intimate ground-level photographs capturing the horror of the immediate atomic aftermath was prohibited, including the handful of harrowing images of Hiroshima taken on the day of the bombing by the Chugoku Shimbun photographer Yoshito Matsushige, and those of Nagasaki taken the day after by Yosuke Yamahata. These images were not published in the United States until Life magazine presented them in a photo-spread in September 1952, after the implementation of the Peace Treaty formally ended the Occupation. A month earlier, on the seventh anniversary of the levelling of Hiroshima, the venerable Japanese weekly Asahi Graph had published an issue dedicated to explicit photographs of the bombings and their victims.16 In their absence, images of the destruction circulated on the black market in the form of postcards (with titles such as ‘Terrible Sight’), many of which were acquired as souvenirs by BCOF servicemen. Thus during and well after the Occupation, photographic imagery of the atomic bomb was monopolised by the uncensored sight of the mushroom cloud spiralling high into the sky, camouflaging the horrors down below. This ‘abstract image’, argues Adam Harrison Levy, was essentially exculpatory, freeing the bombing from ‘human agency’.17
The official Australian visual record of the Occupation is revealing. Photographers attached to the Military History Section (MHS) were handed a brief to construct a faithful, ‘impartial’ view of the Occupation. Yet they were selective in what they chose to photograph.18 The first photographer appointed to ‘MHS BCOF’, Alan Cuthbert, produced several panoramic photographs of Hiroshima and its neighbourhood, including Kure. Soon after arriving in Japan in February 1946, he photographed from the roof of the Chugoku Shimbun building, in which more than 100 employees had perished on 6 August (see Figure 3). The elevated vantage point provides a perspective of a devastated landscape that is virtually devoid of people, save a few anonymous figures walking along the crossroads, as well as two small clusters of uniformed personnel in the foreground, by the shell of the Jesuit church that served Hiroshima’s small Christian community.
Objective and methodical, Cuthbert’s vista of absence and annihilation is highly reminiscent of the photographs taken by the Physical Damage Division of the Strategic Bombing Survey (1946) commissioned by the US government after the war to assess the effectiveness of the aerial campaigns in Germany and Japan, with a view to informing the future civil defence architecture of the United States.19 But while it provides an impressive image of the astonishing spread of the nuclear devastation, Cuthbert’s panorama conveys an aloof and sanitised picture of the atomic-bombed city. By 1946 much of the debris had been cleaned up and the streets are neat and tidy; only picturesque ruins remain of what was Hiroshima. What this impersonal image does not show is the pervasive misery and persistent sickness of a traumatised population. Like the imagery of the mushroom cloud, this structured absence of human suffering is troubling.20
Not that Cuthbert confined himself to working from a comfortable remove. He also scoured the streets of Hiroshima, photographing crowded tramcars as the shattered population began to regroup, and visiting the docks at nearby Kure to photograph Japanese labourers under BCOF supervision dismantling naval infrastructure to provide the scrap metal needed for the immense task of rebuilding.21 One of Cuthbert’s ground-level images displays an acute and possibly ironic eye for detail. In Figure 4, a Japanese labourer works with an oxyacetylene torch in the shipbreaking yards. His clothes are virtually rags except for the straw boater: suitably nautical, perhaps, but incongruously jaunty and indeed ridiculous in the gritty context. Military defeat and occupation had effected a transformation in fearsome Japanese male stereotypes. The fanatical Japanese warrior had become something other altogether—dutiful and hard-working, but faintly vaudevillian.
Hiroshima’s rebuilding was symbolic as well as pragmatic, and the city was well on the way to becoming the ‘place of pilgrimage for pacifists’ anticipated by the globe-trotting Australian writer Frank Clune in his travel book Ashes of Hiroshima (1950), the product of a trip to the BCOF areas in 1948.22 The making of Hiroshima as a self-styled ‘Mecca for World Peace’ began almost immediately, with the formation in January 1946 of the Hiroshima Reconstruction Bureau. The creation of what we now know as ‘Peace Park’, with its host of commemorative structures (including the prolific use of plaques bearing ‘before and after’ photographic images of the city), was just a few years away. In 1948 the slogan ‘No more Hiroshimas’, taken from an article in the US service newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes, was applied to a local campaign to make the city a focus for the advocacy of world peace. It has stuck as an anti-nuclear catchcry ever since, paradoxically linking the city forever with the historical fact of its destruction.
‘No More Hiroshima’s’ [sic] made its first appearance on a large banner at the second of the official annual Peace Festivals, on the third anniversary of the bombing,
6 August 1948. Cuthbert’s MHS colleague Alan Queale was there to record an event that was to become notorious (see Figure 5). In what would later be a ritual at this solemn event, doves had been sent fluttering into the summer sky; bells had tolled; poets had recited commemorative odes. And then BCOF’s Australian commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Horace Robertson, Gallipoli veteran and hero of the North African campaign in the Second World War, strode to the podium.
In 1946 Robertson had demonstrated his goodwill by offering the services of Australian engineers and town planners to rehabilitate Hiroshima as ‘a city dedicated to the idea of Peace’, a gesture vetoed by MacArthur. But on this special day he chose to tell the assembled citizens, many of them young children who would have lost beloved family members in the blast, that it was their own fault. The bomb was a ‘punishment’ handed to the city as ‘retribution’ for Japanese militarism. To emphasise his point, he had detailed a squadron of Mustang fighters to fly low over the ceremony—an ear-shattering reminder of the bolt from the blue three years earlier. Perhaps that is what prompted the Japanese man standing on the jeep in Queale’s picture to point skywards.23
So much for ‘peace’. Civilian Australians such as Frank Clune may have been impressed by Robertson’s harangue. In Ashes of Hiroshima Clune is both callous and flippant in his view of Japan’s atomic ‘punishment’, blaming the wholesale devastation wrought by the bomb on the Japanese for being ‘too stupid and ignorant to build solidly’. Yet even Clune had his enmity qualified by the sight of Japanese children, in particular. ‘No man could see the ashes of Hiroshima and fail to feel qualms,’ he wrote. Driving along the perilously narrow coastal road back to Kure, he sees Japanese kids playing in the water. ‘They at any rate had no war-guilt,’ he remarks. ‘We couldn’t honestly say it served them right.’24 Certainly many among the common soldiery of BCOF responded with sensitivity to the plight of the people of Hiroshima Prefecture, and regarded helping them rebuild their lives and their city as the force’s main achievement in Japan.
Away from his professional duties recording BCOF activities, Queale—the brother of the novelist Jessica Anderson—sought out the common folk of Japan for a series of portraits collected in his private albums, held in the photographic archives of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He photographed another local festival, the O-bon, which has evolved over time into a Buddhist summer holiday honouring the departed spirits of ancestors who return to Earth in midsummer to visit their relatives (see Figure 6). In Hiroshima it often coincides with the remembrance of the atomic bombings. It is not the spectacle of the festival that is the object of Queale’s camera, but a young, traditionally dressed girl, posing for him away from the crowd of spectators. Here we see a gently beguiling image of essentially feminine Japan rather than the country demonised by wartime propaganda, one that no technology of destruction could erase.
The penchant for photographing Japanese children extended to common servicemen such as Neville Govett. A sergeant in a Transport Company, Govett was an active member of the BCOF Tourist Club, which enjoyed group tours to various locations throughout the length and breadth of the Japanese archipelago; out of it emerged a camera club. Complied by Govett, The Story of the B.C.O.F. Tourist Club (1950) records the full itinerary of some 200 outings, well over 20 of which were to Hiroshima and environs. The book is copiously illustrated with photographs of the club’s activities, but only one of Hiroshima, a humdrum view of the A-bomb Dome. Perhaps the club thought it in questionable taste to highlight a voyeuristic interest in a site of mass death. Several of the photographs are the work of the MHS photographer Claude Holzheimer, clichéd pictures of castles, mountain views and tea ceremonies. Govett’s own unpublished photographs are much more compelling. Taking to the streets of Hiroshima, he made effective use of the winter sunshine in a photograph of a boy selling black market cigarettes (see Figure 7). The boy confidently faces Govett’s Box Brownie, to the evident amusement of his friends. Hiroshima was full of uprooted youngsters, living rough, supporting themselves as best they could. Many had lost their fathers to the late war, or one or both parents in the bombing. The survival instinct was strong, if not always especially edifying.
Stephen Kelen, who served with BCOF Intelligence before joining the military newspaper BCON, was less reticent than Govett about publishing his graphic scenes of Hiroshima. Several of the personal photographs that illustrate his memoir I Remember Hiroshima (1983) are now lodged in the Hiroshima Municipal Archives, and are among the most significant taken by a foreign soldier in Occupied Japan. Indeed, Stephen Kelen himself personifies the tentative process of Australian rapprochement with the old enemy that took place in postwar Japan.
Born in Hungary in 1912, Kelen arrived in Australia in 1937 as an international table tennis champion, playing a series of exhibition matches. Refusing to return to Hungary for military service, he settled in Sydney and joined the Australian Army instead, enlisting in May 1945 and serving briefly in New Guinea and North Borneo before joining BCOF. In the early, edgy days of the Pacific War, Kelen’s knowledge of Japan acquired during his global table tennis odyssey gave him credibility as a commentator on the country. In a series of articles published in late 1941 and 1942 in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Argus, Kelen critiqued Japanese customs and culture as a means of understanding a people he called ‘strange, unscrupulous and … reckless’. The wartime climate hardly encouraged a sympathetic view of the Japanese. He wrote that he had originally gone to Japan naively believing that ‘the differences between the Nipponese and the Occidentals’ were ‘purely ideological’, and that essentially ‘they are just the same human beings as we are’. But firsthand knowledge taught him otherwise. The Japanese, he proclaimed, are ‘as strange to us as the inhabitants of the moon’.25
A different tone pervades Kelen’s writing on the Occupation. By the time of the first anniversary of the bombing, he had already visited Hiroshima several times, walking its streets, speaking to the survivors and taking photographs. Attending the commemorative services on 6 August 1946, he expected to encounter sorrow and possibly anger. Instead he found acceptance, and the experience becomes an epiphany of cultural reconciliation. The first anniversary of the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ coincided with the O-bon festivities taking place in the vicinity of Ground Zero.
In the flickering light of kerosene lamps and to the sound of drums and the clapping of hands, the people of Hiroshima danced the festival dance, the Bon Odori, ‘forming a circle, moving round and round, greeting the dead whose souls had been liberated from their sufferings in the Buddhist hell and elevated to a state of celestial bliss’. The only foreign observer, Kelen felt uncomfortable. ‘How would we have reacted if the enemy had destroyed Sydney a year ago?’ he asks himself. Then the music suddenly stopped and someone called to the Australian: ‘Come and dance with us, honourable soldier.’ Two grimy Hiroshima urchins took him by the hands and led him into the circle. There on the riverbank, Kelen writes, ‘In front of a grotesque skeleton of a building, with the people of Hiroshima I too danced the Bon Odori.’26 Commander Robertson would not have approved.
But it is in the many photographs illustrating his text that Kelen’s conciliatory attitude to emerges most vividly. Kelen appears to have been especially keen to capture uplifting images of a tenacious Japan emerging from the ashes. Along with his photograph of groups of Hiroshima orphans, his photograph of an open-air schoolroom, set up in the rubble, is one of the best-known images of atomic Hiroshima, and features in online educational material published by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, to spread the anti-nuclear gospel.27 Kelen also took several images of a citizenry busily getting on with the life, far from demoralised by the enormity of what had befallen their city and neither cowed nor kowtowing to their occupier. His intent is revealed in one of his lesser known photographs, not included in I Remember Hiroshima. Here the Digger is a shadowy, indistinct shape in the background; the focus is directed at the perky, businesslike market woman, cursorily posing for the Australian photographer (see Figure 8).
Australian and American photography of the Occupation characteristically highlights women and children in order to reframe Japan as a potential peacetime ally—the men were still too closely identified with the horrors of the war.28 Kelen was more inclusive. In a carefully conceived photograph, two middle-aged Japanese men walk purposefully toward Kelen’s camera, in a typical tableau of Hiroshima devastation. As two Diggers slouch back into the bombsite and towards the vanishing point beneath the cluster of stripped trees, the two conspicuously civilian, Western-attired Japanese walk out of it, away from the militarist past that led to such destruction, defeat and military occupation, and into a future that would be independently determined by men such as them (see Figure 9). It is a photograph that is rich in allegorical significance.
By contrast with the responsive but also artful work of amateur photographers such as Kelen and Govett, the work of the celebrated artist Albert Tucker in postwar Japan is remarkably tame. Tucker spent three months attached to BCOF in early 1947, photographing, sketching and painting the bombsites of Hiroshima and Kure, and also visiting Osaka and Tokyo. He took some engaging pictures of children, but his obligatory photograph of the A-bomb Dome is duller than many made by amateurs, and his paintings and sketches are undistinguished.29 Years later, Tucker confided that he was ‘too young and inexperienced’ to grasp the immensity of Hiroshima and that his ‘empathic abilities weren’t developed as fully’ as he would have wished. Given that he was well into his thirties when he travelled to Japan, and had already produced some of his best work, including the Images of Modern Evil series depicting sordid urban life in wartime Australia, this is a strange comment. Nonetheless it is a revealing nod to the challenges posed by Hiroshima, and the difficulty of getting beyond what Tucker calls its ‘superficial aura’.30
Tucker’s photograph of a piece of twisted metal at the Kure shipyards is the work of an artist unable to register a response to destruction other than one that is purely aesthetic (see Figure 10). The industrial detritus of the bombing that killed and maimed so many is turned into a modernist sculptured object of aesthetic contemplation, and pleasure. ‘There is beauty in ruins,’ Susan Sontag has suggested, citing photographs of the ‘Ground Zero’ site in downtown New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. But photographing human tragedy is ethically fraught. Photography ‘that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible’, she writes, ‘is much criticized if it seems “aesthetic”; that is, too much like art’. In Tucker’s defence it might be argued he is merely responding like the artist he is, bearing witness to destruction by framing it as an image, according to the conventions of his craft.31 Nonetheless Tucker’s photograph seems too detached, just as Cuthbert’s sweeping views of Hiroshima’s destruction seem a little too clinical, or ‘overconstructed’ in the sense meant by Roland Barthes in his discussion of ‘shock photos’.32
The arresting photographs of amateurs such as Kelen and Govett support Sontag’s contention that the work of an untrained and inexperienced photographer is not necessarily inferior to that of a professional, and enjoys ‘the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect’ that can make for good pictures.33 Moreover, they reveal the ability of ordinary Australians, freed of professional compulsions or the official obligation to provide an unproblematic perspective of a sometimes controversial occupation, to respond with sensitivity to the travails of a people who were still distrusted, especially back home in Australia, where many considered the Occupation indulgently benevolent and disarmingly constructive.
The documentary value of the photography of violence has become a topic of debate in recent years, especially after Susan Sontag’s dismissal of the genre in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), where she contentiously remarked that, while narratives ‘make us understand’, photographs merely ‘haunt us’.34 It is true that the potency of Hiroshima imagery has tended to overwhelm subsequent disasters, such as the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear complex in eastern Honshu following the earthquake and catastrophic tsunami in March 2011.35 On occasion it has also proved an impediment to accurate historical accounting. In 2008 the august French daily Le Monde published grisly pictures of human cadavers that were purportedly ‘lost’ photographs of the bombing, taken from rolls of undeveloped film discovered in a cave outside Hiroshima—photographs released by the Hoover Institution Archives at the prestigious Stanford University. To Stanford’s great embarrassment, it was soon proved that they are images of the carnage produced by the Kanto earthquake in 1923.36
Yet the pictures of Australian-occupied Hiroshima are more than ‘haunting’. They pose searching moral as well as aesthetic questions about the act of taking photographs of a human tragedy in which Australia was complicit. They also reveal in postwar Australians a capacity for empathy and an eagerness for historical reconciliation that was to prove productive in the coming years, as the two former bitter antagonists forged a bilateral relationship based on mutual respect (and not a little economic self-interest).
1 Maria Tumarkin, Traumascapes: The Power and Fate of Places Transformed by Tragedy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005, p. 186.
2 See for example the mute response of Lorraine Stumm, Australia’s first accredited female correspondent in the Second World War, to her first sight of Hiroshima. In Lorraine Stumm, I saw too much, Write-On Group, Coopernook, NSW, 2000, p. 140.
3 Robin Gerster, ‘Capturing Japan: Australian Photography of the Postwar Military Occupation’, History of Photography, vol. 39, no. 3 (2015), p. 281.
4 Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire, Virago, London, 2003, p. 8.
5 See the pamphlet Tour of Hiroshima Japan: ‘The Atomic City’, conducted by the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces and the Eighth United States Army military government, Hiroshima Printing Co., Hiroshima, c. 1946. The author thanks Dr Ran Zwigenberg of Pennsylvania State University for supplying this document.
6 Wilfred Burchett, ‘The Atomic Plague’, Daily Express, 5 September 1945, p. 1, quoted in Burchett, Shadows of Hiroshima, Verso, London, 1983, pp. 34–6.
7 Meanjin Papers, vol. 4, no. 3 (Spring 1945), p. 149.
8 See Kenzaburo Oë, Hiroshima Notes, Grove Press, New York, 1981, p. 67.
9 ‘New Era’, Courier Mail editorial, 8 August 1945, p. 2; ‘Atom bomb ruin staggers Australians in Japan’, Argus, 18 February 1946, p. 20.
10 See the Argus Newspaper Collections of Photographs, State Library of Victoria, H98.104/563, H98.100/172.
11 Prue Torney-Parlicki, ‘“Whatever the Thing may Be Called”: The Australian News Media and the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 31, no. 114 (2000), p. 61.
12 ‘MacArthur’s “kind to Japs” order poses dilemma’, Melbourne Herald, 29 September 1949, p. 1.
13 Monica Braw, The Atomic Bomb Suppressed: American Censorship in Japan 1945–1948, Liber Forlag, Tokyo, 1986, p. 14. The author interviewed Kurihara in 1978.
14 Australasian Post, 10 October 1946, esp. pp. 12–13. Hersey’s Hiroshima was extracted in Japan in the service newspaper the British Commonwealth Occupation News (BCON), the readership of which was almost entirely non-Japanese. See ‘Death came swiftly with the atomic bomb—and lingers’, BCON, 12 October 1946, p. 5.
15 Stimson quoted in Braw, p. 141.
16 ‘When the Atom Bomb Struck—Uncensored’, Life, 29 September 1952, pp. 19–25; Asahi Graph special issue, 6 August 1952: see Hirofumi Utsumi, ‘Nuclear Images and National Self-Portraits: Japanese Illustrated Magazine Asahi Graph, 1945–1965’, Bulletin of the Kwansei Gakuin Institute for Advanced Social Research, vol. 5 (2011), pp. 8–9. Utsumi notes that a few images of the bomb damage had been published in Japan just before the press ban was introduced in September 1945, and again, in the Chugoku Shimbun, in July 1946.
17 Adam Harrison Levy, ‘Hiroshima: The Lost Photographs’, Design Observer, 23 October 2008, <http://designobserver.com/article.php?id=7517>, accessed 13 July 2015.
18 Photography of the Military History Section both during the war and in the Occupation is discussed at length in Shaune Lakin, Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2006, pp. 113, 137, 173–4.
19 See ‘Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945’, International Center of Photography (New York City) website, <http://www.icp.org/browse/archive/collections/hiroshima-ground-zero-1945-may-20-august-28-2011>, accessed 14 July 2015.
20 On this representational issue, see Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, ‘The Iconic Image of the Mushroom Cloud and the Cold War Optic’, in Geoffrey Batchen et al. (eds), Picturing Atrocity: Photographs in Crisis, Reaktion, London, 2012, pp. 135–45.
21 Allan Cuthbert photographs in the Australian War Memorial collection, for example AWM 131784 and 131785; 145575 and 145576.
22 Frank Clune, Ashes of Hiroshima: A Postwar Trip to Japan and China, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1950, p. 103.
23 See Clune’s interview with Robertson in Ashes of Hiroshima, pp. 148–9, in which the BCOF commander discusses the rationale behind the speech. A short film of the occasion, made by the Military History Section, is held by the Australian War Memorial, F07474.
24 Clune, Ashes of Hiroshima, pp. 89–90, 93.
25 Stephen Kelen, ‘Japan’s Cult of Death’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 1942, p. 9; ‘Japs differ from us in many little things’, Argus Weekend Magazine, 6 June 1942, p. 3; ‘What sort of person is the Japanese soldier?’, Argus Weekend Magazine, 24 January 1942, p. 3.
26 Stephen Kelen, I Remember Hiroshima, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983, pp. 30–2. Kelen also wrote sympathetically about the Japanese wives of BCOF servicemen who started entering Australia—to open hostility from some quarters—from 1952. See his article ‘“New Australians”—from Japan’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 1952, p. 6.
27 ‘Children in Postwar Hiroshima’, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website: <http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/kids/KPSH_E/hiroshima_e/sadako_e/subcontents_e/12kidssengo_1_e.html>, accessed 14 July 2015; also on the same website, Kelen’s photograph of a group of children living in makeshift shacks: ‘Hiroshima Returning to Life’, <http:///www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/kids/KPSH_E/hiroshima_e/sadako_e/subcontents_e/12yomigaeru_1_e.html>, accessed 17 August 2015.
28 See Morris Low, ‘American Photography during the Allied Occupation of Japan: The Work of John W. Bennett’, History of Photography, vol. 39, no. 3 (2015), pp. 263, 275.
29 Tucker’s photograph of the A-bomb Dome: State Library of Victoria, H2010.72/16.
30 Albert Tucker, interview with Robin Hughes, ABC Radio National program Verbatim, 14 February 1994, <http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/tucker/intertext3.html>, accessed 14 July 2015.
31 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Picador, New York, 2003, p. 76. On the dynamics of witnessing and representation, see Jane Blocker, Seeing Witness: Visuality and the Ethics of Testimony, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009.
32 Roland Barthes, ‘Shock-photos’, in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, New York, 1979, p. 71.
33 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 28.
34 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 89. Sontag’s view has been trenchantly tackled by Susie Linfield, who argues for the genre’s ability to promote empathy and, indeed, to mobilise social and political action. See Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010.
35 Reportage of the Fukushima disaster customarily defined it by comparative reference to Hiroshima, including photo-spreads juxtaposing images from the two events. See for example ‘The nightmare returns: Chilling echoes of Hiroshima’s destruction in images from the aftermath of tsunami’, Daily Mail Australia, 15 March 2011, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1366126/Japan-earthquake/html>, accessed 4 July 2015.
36 ‘Le Monde says disaster pictures weren’t of Hiroshima’, New York Times, 13 May 2008.