This spring my exhibit was at Wilmington College, a Quaker school, and home to the Peace Resource Center. At the core of the PRC’s collection is the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Memorial Collection and I had time to visit with the director Tanya Maus and look through their extensive files.
I am a photographer, so I was drawn to the many photos in their archive. There were original photos with hand-written captions on the back and I wondered about the people who had taken them. Surely they were traumatized themselves. Had they lost loved ones? Did they realize the risk of radiation exposure as they documented the scenes? Did they understand the enormity of what had happened?
There were aerial photos of the mushroom clouds billowing into the sky. (The photo in this post is from Nagasaki) There were broad, sweeping landscapes of empty destruction. And there were photos of people. Old women and young children. Some of them were dead, but others were alive and injured, waiting for medical help.
On the back of one particularly difficult image, the hand-written note read, “As all medical facilities were destroyed and blasted away, the dying people were left without treatment.”
Things don’t happen in isolation.
There was an unexpected book Tanya handed me called American Ground Zero, that detailed the personal stories of people who had suffered the consequences of radiation while living and working near American nuclear test sites. It was done in the style of A Peace of My Mind, with black and white portraits accompanied by personal stories.
The two bombs the United States dropped on Japan had ramifications at home. You don’t wreak havoc without some of it coming back to you.
There is controversy over the use of those two powerful bombs. Some say we had no choice. The war would have taken even more lives if we had not stopped it with those two stunning blasts. And others would say that the loss of civilian life was unprecedented and immoral. Both sides would defend their positions with historical data and there would be no resolution to the question of whether we should have done what we did.
I am more interested in what’s next.
Do we acknowledge what we did? Do we honor the lives lost? Do we mourn them? Do we learn from our past mistakes?
I am glad that our president will stop at the Hiroshima Peace Site on Friday when he is in Japan. He’s the first sitting president to do so. I hope he will visit with some of the survivors as well. There is no clearer picture of history than those who lived through it.
It’s uncomfortable to look at some of the photos from those blasts. It can be challenging to face our past honestly and openly. But sometimes the best path forward is to acknowledge the difficult realities of our past. To face them with courage, grace, and humility, and from that experience, develop the conviction to never let them happen again.
Here is a link to an article written by Tanya Maus and Jim Reynolds, the president of Wilmington College, about the importance of that upcoming visit. I’m grateful to know them both.