Photographer Haruka Sakaguchi was first spurred to create work about Japanese hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) after a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2005. “At that time,” she told me, “when you entered the exhibition, you’d see a wax mannequin that resembled what happened to the human body when it’s exposed to radiation. Seeing that wax sculpture, the result and impact of the bomb really hit home for me.”
Walking through the memorial thirteen years ago, Sakaguchi was introduced to the survivors’ personal belongings, photographs of the scene, and diary entries. “It was a very visceral experience,” she said. “And after the exhibit, there was a section with a guest book where visitors could record their thoughts.” Leafing through the book, Sakaguchi delved into dozens of thought-provoking and introspective messages from people all over the world before she was confronted with something that still resonates with her today. “As I looked through the book, I found one page that was nearly empty—but at the bottom, in English, it just said, ‘They started it.’ To me, this obviously meant the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, someone can walk through this long, winding exhibition, but it still doesn’t hold a light to the victor’s narrative.’”
Sakaguchi’s strong feelings about this subject are rooted in her experience growing up in the United States. The photographer lived in Japan until she was three months old, at which point her family moved to the US, where she was educated in the US public school system. The information disseminated to students about the impact of the atomic bombs, she felt, was perfunctory at best. “In middle school, we learned about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and I feel that I was given a good education about the background to the war,” she recounts. “And yet when it came to the atomic bomb, it was always portrayed to me as a necessary evil and a way to prevent further deaths of Japanese citizens. To me, that was a very simplistic and patronizing line of reasoning.”
This background set the stage for Sakaguchi’s current—and ongoing—project on the hibakusha, “1945.” A series featuring the victims of the atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “1945” is a collection of interviews (conducted by Sakaguchi) and black-and-white portrait photographs that offer firsthand accounts of the bombs’ devastating impact and aftermath. During her interviews with the victims, Sakaguchi also asks the survivors to write letters directed to future generations; these letters are then placed adjacent to the portraits in a diptych format. An English translation is available in the image’s caption.
Sakaguchi hopes that her photo project will become a resource for American teachers and students. Although the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima has a database of accounts from victims of the atomic bombs, it is difficult to use, and Sakaguchi felt that the English translations didn’t do the stories justice. Additionally, many of the personal histories within the database are two or three hours long. “I just couldn’t imagine a lot of teachers sifting through that material and then requesting accessible clips to show to their classes,” Sakaguchi explained to me. “I wanted to create something that would be powerful, accessible, and immediate.”
Putting together “1945” was a challenge on many levels. On her first trip back to the memorial, in 2017, Sakaguchi felt that she was prepared to present herself as a photographer and documentarian to the hibakusha. And yet, the victims weren’t easy to contact. After trying in vain to communicate with a few hibakusha, Sakaguchi received an invaluable piece of advice from a local about a different memorial that was frequented by the survivors. She waited for hours, and eventually, her patience paid off; she connected with people in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki who opened up their social circles to her. From there, word of her project spread.
Access wasn’t the only hurdle Sakaguchi faced. From the outset, she told me, she was deeply aware of her upbringing and its impact on her perspective. “I have this dual identity, where I’m trying to reconcile my Japanese roots with my American education,” she pointed out. “I had this misconception that I couldn’t bring up my American childhood, because what if these people had negative feelings towards the US?” She worried that negative memories and associations would prove hurtful to the hibakusha and also jeopardize her work, but, she said, that was “never, ever the case.” In fact, some of the hibakusha’s remorse was caused by the apparent disinterest from Sakaguchi’s generation in Japan. When Sakaguchi explained her plan to create an educational resource for American teachers, the victims responded, “We need it here, too.”
Despite her initial concerns, Sakaguchi’s insecurity opened up a dialogue that allowed her to capture poignant photographs of the hibakusha. “I decided to start off the conversation with a direct and honest outline of my background, and I like to think that ended up drawing us closer. I would go in and say ‘I know my adoptive home country had a huge role in your pain and suffering, but I would still love to listen to your story. I’m hoping that there’s a way we can—together—communicate this to a larger audience.’” As a result, the hibakusha were open and generous with their stories.
This is powerfully embodied in Sakaguchi’s photographs. The images are respectful, yet dynamic: the victims are presented on a black background that both unifies them and allows them to retain a degree of privacy. This uniform composition also provides a structure through which the viewer can trace variations in emotion—itself a testament to Sakaguchi’s thoughtful interactions with the hibakusha. Some of the survivors are stoic, others unassuming; in a few cases, the pain is foregrounded, sorrow etched in every line of the person’s face. Other survivors—one woman in particular comes to mind—look at peace, dignified. The portraits are a potent reminder that tragedy impacts everyone in different ways. It’s mutable: the only constant is its persistence. It grows and changes as the victims grow and change.
Sakaguchi’s choice to pair handwritten messages alongside the portraits is also compelling. The content of the statements is affecting enough—many of them couple devastating personal anecdotes with pleas for peace—but the manifold writing styles are also telling. Some of the hibakusha covered the pages with bold, broad strokes, ignoring the guiding lines, while others carefully printed small, composed words about their experience. The effect of this variation is humanizing; the viewer is gifted a small glimpse into each person’s personality and means of expression. Coupled with the portraits, these tiny signs of nature and disposition breathe life into the testimonies.
Sakaguchi told me that the first-generation hibakusha are, on average, 81.41 years old. As the survivors continue to age and pass away, crucial testimonies are lost—it has become increasingly difficult to collect firsthand accounts of the human cost of nuclear warfare. Sakaguchi is acutely aware of the time pressure surrounding this project. To that end, in 2017, she made three separate trips to Japan to document the hibakusha, and the project is ongoing. She hopes to add video documentation to the series this year. Despite the ticking clock, though, Sakaguchi espouses a mentality that is emblematic of her conscientious, diligent, and compassionate series: “I want to make sure that I take my time—that I do justice to all of the testimonies. When it comes to documentary work like this, that’s the best outcome you can hope for.”
Haruka Sakaguchi was chosen by Fiona Shields—Head of Photography at the Guardian—as her Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018.
Visit the project’s dedicated website to learn more about this ongoing series.