SHOMEI TOMATSU, Hibakusha Tsuyo Kataoka, Nagasaki, 1961, gelatin silver print, 20.8 × 30.4 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Galerie Priska Pasquer, Cologne.

Breathing the Same Air

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At the age of 15, during an allied fire-bombing raid, the Japanese photographer who once called his eyes “infamously greedy” lay in bed listening to the roar of B-29 bombers overhead, tilting his mirror to catch the planes’ passing reflections and morbidly admiring “the pageant of light.” At the end of the war, Shomei Tomatsu felt a mixture of abhorrence and fascination toward the Americans that would dog him throughout most of a career spent documenting life in the tawdry bars, pawnshops and souvenir stalls that sprung up around their bases, including in his hometown of Nagoya. 

Although the hibakusha, or atomic-bomb survivors, now seem like a natural subject for Tomatsu, as a young photographer on assignment for the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in 1961, he knew precious little about the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945—in part because both the occupiers and the occupied had been complicit in keeping the fates of the hibakusha hidden from view. The Americans censored photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until 1952, and, for many years, survivors received little government aid and were secluded by families, who considered their burns and chronic sicknesses shameful.

For the Japanese, the shunning of the hibakusha was part of a wider effort to discard memories of the disastrous 15‑year war and its terrible end. Tomatsu recalls that, as a child, the quick about-face of the adults—switching from war talk demonizing the Americans to talk about the nations’ cooperation—was more shocking than Japan’s surrender. In Nagasaki, he found that the ruins created by the atomic bomb—largely concealed by the newly rebuilt cityscape—continued to live in its survivors. Their scars remained for all who cared to look. In his famous 1961 close-up of Tsuyo Kataoka, the viewer is forced to confront the scarring of her face. She was 24 years old when the bombs fell. Kataoka’s expression, while full of ambivalence, is tinged with fear or mistrust. It is unclear whether these feelings are directed at the Japanese public, the Americans or the photographer, as every viewer is ultimately implicated in her steady gaze.

Tomatsu returned to Nagasaki every year in August to photograph the hibakusha, eventually moving to the city in 1998. He developed the habit of mailing or delivering a print to his subjects, as this might lead to another meeting or conversation, thus deepening the connection between photographer and photographed. Unlike the realist photographer Ken Domon, who captured raw, gruesome imagery of hibakusha undergoing surgery in Hiroshima, and with whom Tomatsu published the seminal Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961, Tomatsu was drawn to more quietly suggestive scenes—demonstrations of how the hibakusha continued to pursue lives of dignity despite their losses. His work derives its power from his implicit understanding that every click of the camera’s lens was a gross intrusion into a deeply private and isolating experience.

Many of Tomatsu’s photographs of the hibakusha appear to be taken in the survivors’ homes, giving one the impression of having stumbled into moments and spaces of intimacy. An elderly man is bent over by the side of a bed, perhaps putting on his shoes or picking something off the ground, his exposed back marked by raised scars. In another black-and-white image, a woman leans against one edge of a fusuma, which has been slid open just wide enough to reveal the side view of her body; the scarring and uneven pigmentation on her arms is mirrored by the torn and peeling paper of the sliding doors. Underscoring how the bomb continued to effect a second generation, Tomatsu photographed a young girl lifting her arm in a sun-dappled grove of trees to pick fruit. It is a tender, bucolic scene, save for a small detail: her left eye, shrouded in shadows, is fused shut.

The photographs, however, reject the viewer’s pity, and deflect any reductive impulse to see the survivors’ experiences as something that can be easily explained, and thus explained away. Tomatsu’s photos of the hibakusha remain focused on their individual humanity, never rendering them into symbols of mere victimization or suffering—a grace he did not grant the American soldiers, who will forever stand as symbols of aggression in his photographs.

Japan lost one of its greatest and most sensitive visual historians when Shomei Tomatsu passed away in Naha, Okinawa, on December 14, 2012. By the time of his passing, the 82-year-old photographer had developed a life-long relationship with some of his subjects. “You know, we’re breathing the same air, so to speak,” Tomatsu said of the survivors. “I’m not a hibakusha, so I cannot understand their feelings one hundred percent. What I can do is accompany them on their run; I mean to run along beside them . . . through our era.” In a 1998 photograph of Senji Yamaguchi, whom Tomatsu had begun photographing as early as 1962, the atomic-bomb survivor is leaning out of a boat or ferry. He grasps the edge of the window like a child, peering into the distance at some unknown spot. To the left of the window frame, the water meets the sky in a flash of light, partially obscuring the horizon from view. Although the future is hidden, the photograph seems to say, at least here, on this boat, we are all traveling there together.