On August 6th, 1945, Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Yoshito Matsushige, a 32 year old cameraman, was one of the handful of people who managed to photograph the city that day, and the only person who documented the carnage around the epicenter.
This is the story of how these photos were taken. Of why so few such photos exist (in a nutshell, the survivors were too shocked from the suffering around them to take pictures of it). And how the existing photos were kept away from the public eye, both in Japan and in the West. [Text below and photos above from Iconic Photos. Emphasis mine.]
Nuclear blast and wind destroyed buildings within its 1.5-mile radius. Yoshito Matsushige was barely out of this radius at a little over 1.6-miles from the ground zero. Heading out to the citycentre, Matsushige took the only photographs taken of Hiroshima on that calamitous day. Matsushige himself was not seriously injured by the blast, but the scenes of carnage and dying people prevented him from taking further pictures. (He had 24 possible exposures, in the 10 hours he spent wandering the devastated city, but only seven came out right).
The importance of scenes that Mr. Matsushige documented were not immediately realized in the outside world. Another bomb would follow a few days later, and the war in Far East was finally over. The tone of the Western Press, from the New York Times to Life, was almost triumphal. They would not receive the photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki until months later, and even then, only the heavily censored ones. In addition, the radiation sickness was dismissed as a Japanese effort to undermine American morale, and the stories to that effect were frequently killed. This type of censorship was so prevalent that when MGM had a scene casting doubts on whether an atomic weapon should have been used, the White House called the studio to change the script.
In Japan, the censorship was more draconian. It was not just buildings that were annihilated in Hiroshima; an entire collective memory too was erased. For many years the sole images of the bombings in Japan were sketches and paintings by survivors. General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits from the foreign press. Wilfred Burchett — who secretively sneaked on a train — had his camera stolen, photos confiscated and was expelled and banned from Japan. Live footage taken by Akira Iwasaki was seized and taken to the United States, and was not returned until 1968. For Matsushige himself, his films were so toxic that he was unable to develop them for twenty days, and even then had to do so at night and in the open, rinsing it in a stream. When he tried to publish them, they were confiscated. Under the blanket rule that “nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility,” graphic photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not printed until the U.S. occupation ended in Japan in April 1952. The magazine Asahi Gurafu opened the floodgates by publishing them in August 1952.
YOSHITO MATSUSHIGE’S ACCOUNT :
“I had finished breakfast and was getting ready to go to the newspaper when it happened. There was a flash from the indoor wires as if lightening had struck. I didn’t hear any sound, how shall I say, the world around me turned bright white. And I was momentarily blinded as if a magnesium light had lit up in front of my eyes. Immediately after that, the blast came. I was bare from the waist up, and the blast was so intense, it felt like hundreds of needles were stabling me all at once. The blast grew large holes in the walls of the first and second floor. I could barely see the room because of all the dirt. I pulled my camera and the clothes issued by the military headquarters out from under the mound of the debris, and I got dressed. I thought I would go to either either the newspaper or to the headquarters.
That was about 40 minutes after the blast. Near the Miyuki Bridge, there was a police box. Most of the victims who had gathered there were junior high school girls from the Hiroshima Girls Business School and the Hiroshima Junior High School No.1. they had been mobilized to evacuate buildings and they were outside when the bomb fell. Having been directly exposed to the heat rays, they were covered with blisters, the size of balls, on their backs, their faces, their shoulders and their arms. The blisters were starting to burst open and their skin hung down like rugs. Some of the children even have burns on the soles of their feet. They’d lost their shoes and run barefoot through the burning fire. When I saw this, I thought I would take a picture and I picked up my camera. But I couldn’t push the shutter because the sight was so pathetic. Even though I too was a victim of the same bomb, I only had minor injuries from glass fragments, whereas these people were dying. It was such a cruel sight that I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter.
Perhaps I hesitated there for about 20 minutes, but I finally summoned up the courage to take one picture. Then, I moved 4 or 5 meters forward to take the second picture. Even today, I clearly remember how the view finder was clouded over with my tears. I felt that everyone was looking at me and thinking angrily, “He’s taking our picture and will bring us no help at all.” Still, I had to press the shutter, so I harden my heart and finally I took the second shot. Those people must have thought me duly cold-hearted. Then, I saw a burnt streetcar which had just turned the corner at Kamiya-cho. There were passengers still in the car. I put my foot onto the steps of the car and I looked inside. There were perhaps 15 or 16 people in front of the car. They laid dead one on top of another. Kamiya-cho was very close to the epicenter, about 200 meters away. The passengers had stripped them of all their clothes. They say that when you are terrified, you tremble and your hair stands on end. And I felt just this tremble when I saw this scene. I stepped down to take a picture and I put my hand on my camera. But I felt so sorry for these dead and naked people whose photo would be left to posterity that I couldn’t take the shot. Also, in those days we weren’t allowed to publish the photographs of corpses in the newspapers.
After that, I walked around, I walked through the section of town which had been hit hardest. I walked for close to three hours. But I couldn’t take even one picture of that central area. There were other cameramen in the army shipping group and also at the newspaper as well. But the fact that not a single one of them was able to take pictures seems to indicate just how brutal the bombing actually was. I don’t pride myself on it, but it’s a small consolation that I was able to take at least five pictures. During the war, air-raids took place practically every night. And after the war began, there were many foods shortages. Those of us who experienced all these hardships, we hope that such suffering will never be experienced again by our children and our grandchildren. Not only our children and grandchildren, but all future generations should not have to go through this tragedy. That is why I want young people to listen to our testimonies and to choose the right path, the path which leads to peace.”
Photo details: the mushroom cloud; the shadow of a person who was disintegrated at the moment of the blast (these steps were cut out and now inside the Hiroshima Peace Park museum); people who escaped serious injury applying cooking oil to their burns near Miyuki bridge (two photos); a policeman, his head bandaged, issues certificates to civilians; the damage to Matsushige family’s barbershop.
and the perpetrators have still not been made to pay for this horrendous crime against humanity