70 years ago, the United States of America launched the Nuclear Era by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Since those terrible moments, the nagging dread and fear of more nuclear attacks and mass devastation has haunted the thoughts and imaginations of people and cultures around the world. The recent multinational talks with Iran to prevent (or postpone) yet another nation from having the capability to launch nuclear war brings these justifiable fears back into the spotlight. Also, there are grave doubts about those world leaders who still have the capability to order an attack and start a war (think North Korea). Yet, what about those men and women further down the chain of command who have access to the bomb? What is the potential for a Dr. Strangelove scenario?
Photographer Justin Barton has recently published the results of his personal investigative journalism that explores several 20th-century US and USSR nuclear missile systems and their crews from both sides of the Cold War ideological fence. He combines rare interior views of war rooms, the nuclear weapons, as well as portraits and interviews with the men who were empowered to push the button.
In an interview with LensCulture, Barton talks about his motivation and findings:
My work examines the small elements and left moments, both in the tiny wear of the objects and their evident usage, but also the effect of such a responsibility on the individuals themselves. Each portrait is a reflection of their counterpart [US vs. Soviet] and each object is a reflection of the cultures that create these weapons.
Whilst, nuclear weapons will remain (as they must) secret, these rare images aim to force the viewer to recognize their existence and contemplate their day-to-day reality. I focus on the details of the missiles to give them a human proportion that we can assimilate, as I believe it is easy to mentally dismiss weapons of mass destruction, as we can only comprehend their consequences in the most abstract terms.
There are thousands of nuclear warheads in existence today many of which are ready to launch in under a minute. Such weapons remain our greatest existential threat despite the ending of the Cold War and as such they deserve questioning and contemplation.
So who were these individuals who could threaten the end of civilization in the name of peace, these gods who held the world in their hands? I wanted to meet them and to share their messages with the world.
The report is not the least bit encouraging, and human frailty and the opportunity for human error seems devastatingly real.
— Jim Casper