At 8:15am on the morning of August 6 2015, in blistering heat I stood with young and old at ground zero in Hiroshima, Japan. It was a bewildering, searing moment of collective remembrance, melting in the buzz of cicadas and hum of birdsong. I photographed the sky because it was clear, blue and beautiful, as it apparently was that morning in 1945 when the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped from a United States military plane. Three days later, on August 9, ‘Fat Man’ fell on Nagasaki.
I was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to photograph the 70th anniversary ceremonies and to meet with women survivors (hibakusha). As an independent documentary photographer, my lifelong work involves documenting in images, words and sounds, the often silent, hidden, invisible or ignored personal narratives of women survivors of war and crucially, how they attempt to rebuild lives in the aftermath.
Standing among us were other silent witnesses, the voiceless hibaku jumoku (A-bomb survivor trees) which bore the full force of the atomic blast. When the bomb on Hiroshima exploded, up to 80,000 adults and children within two kilometres of the epicentre were incinerated within six seconds. Thousands more received horrific injuries, their skin burned clean away or left hanging in shreds. The trees were stripped to charcoal stumps. Trees growing further away from the epicentre snapped or bent at their roots. Trunks facing the bomb’s heat rays were scorched, torn and their barks puckered.
In the weeks and months following the bombing, the traumatised people of Hiroshima looked around their landscape of ash, debris and waste. They were told nothing would grow for seventy years. Yet the following spring, the survivors noticed green shoots emerging from the A-bomb trees. These signs of new life gave the people of Hiroshima courage to rebuild their shattered city and to carry on. Even today the A-bomb trees stand as symbols of hope through their proven ability to generate new life, a power far greater than any weapon.
Beneath the A-Bomb Trees
I collected fallen leaves from the Chinese Parasol tree, the eucalyptus and the ancient gingko, bent and buckled yet still standing, and photographed them. In the coming days in Hiroshima and Nagasaki I alternated between photographing the A-bombed trees, and meeting and listening to female hibakusha as they generously and courageously shared their memories and stories. For years after the bombings some had remained silent about what had happened for fear of the stigma associated with being impacted by an atomic bomb. Others had travelled the world as campaigners against nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Then I met Teruko, Tomoko and Kuniko, three generations of one hibakusha family who work to promote international peace and campaign against nuclear weapons. Grandmother, Teruko Ueno, survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She was 15 and in her second year at the nursing school at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. As a result of the atomic bombing the students’ dormitory caught fire. Teruko helped efforts to fight the flames. Fellow students burned to death before her eyes. She has no memory of that first week after the bombing, only of working day and night with no food and little water, treating victims with horrific injuries. After graduating Teruko continued to work at the hospital. She assisted with operations involving skin grafts, where the skin from a patient’s thigh was grafted to an area that had developed a keloid scar as a result of burns. Teruko worked as a nurse until marrying Tatsuyuki, another A-bomb survivor. Like many survivors, when Teruko became pregnant with her first child, she was very worried about whether the baby would be born healthy, and whether it would survive. When the baby, a daughter they named Tomoko, thrived, Teruko felt courage to go on.
Inspired by her mother’s experience, Tomoko founded ANT-Hiroshima (Asian Network of Trust) in 1987, a small organisation involved in relief, reconstruction and peacebuilding projects worldwide. Teruko’s grand-daughter, Kuniko, is also a peace worker, studying the after-effects of the atomic bombings and also the after-effects among uranium mine workers and those involved in developing and testing nuclear weapons. Meeting these three women left such an impact on my understanding of the resilience of women who are determined to use their experience in order to help educate others and build a better world.
Back home in the UK, I exhibited the hibakusha photographs and stories, and also images of the A-bomb leaves in The Flora of War, to help spread the words and messages of the hibakusha. I kept in touch with Tomoko and booked to return in spring 2020 ahead of the 75th Anniversary, to continue our visual conversations and to photograph the A-bombed cherry trees during the sakura cherry blossom season. You have to photograph the cherry blossoms, she had insisted.
So in March 2020, I had my suitcase packed for a flight to Tokyo and onward bullet trains to Hiroshima then Nagasaki. Then Covid-19 struck. All was cancelled and we went into Lockdown. Our conversations moved online and through Naoko Koizumi, my amazing fixer, interpreter and online corona-companion, we did what we set out to do, despite the 5,270-miles distance and eight hour time difference.
High school students Aiko Nishiyama and Shirabe Nakahara gathered and pressed fallen cherry blossoms gathered from the ground around the A-bomb cherry tree in Ikari Shrine, Hiroshima. Tomoko packaged them safely and sent them to me. I photographed the cherry blossom of the A-bombed trees to reflect the stories told to me by the hibakusha, had them printed and posted the art prints back to Hiroshima.
Throughout I have been thinking about the female hibakusha 75 years ago, mere schoolgirls then. Women and girls are biologically more susceptible to harmful effects of ionising radiation and negative consequences including psychological health, displacement, social stigma and discrimination (UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons). I asked if they had any old photographs of themselves as children with their families. Some photographs were destroyed in the blast or lost in the ensuing chaos. Those that survived are black and white poignant memories of childhoods forever changed by war, by one bomb. Maybe, we said, we could make a photo book.
So in this 75th Anniversary year, our visual conversations continue. Come next spring, who knows, we may meet at ground zero in Hiroshima, among the A-bomb trees, beneath the cherry blossoms.
Lee Karen Stow
Listen to the interviews of the women survivors here.