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The pictures that no one should have seen

· An exhibition of images of the aftermath of Hiroshima hidden for decades ·

Having decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the United States government, on the orders of President Harry Truman, limited the circulation of pictures of the city. It was too risky “to disturb public tranquility.” They feared the reaction of the Japanese, of their own Americans and people from every place on the planet to the effects of the first atomic bomb used in a conventional conflict, which caused the instantaneous death of 140,000 people and the destruction of 70% of the infrastructure. Not to mention the consequences of that unknown “pestilence” which would continue to claim victims in the days and months following and go on silently for years to come.

But it could not remain a secret forever. In fact, images of the Japanese city annihilated by the atomic bomb came to light twenty-five years later. But no one saw them. Those photos risked being lost forever; in the last few decades there had been no trace of them. Suddenly, however, after casually coming across them, the photos found their way to the collection of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and will be exhibited until August 28, with the evocative title: “Hiroshima – Ground Zero, 1945.”

The story of the images that no one was supposed to see is like a novel. Two months after the explosion, the US administration sent some members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division to Hiroshima to analyze the effects. The final report is contained in three volumes of 800 pictures.

Once the secret was out, the photos ended up in a garage of one of the engineers involved in the project – rather than in an archive. The house caught fire and many of the pictures were destroyed, except for a small part which was thrown away, perhaps unintentionally. Nothing more was known of them until one day in 2000, when Don Levy, the owner of a diner in Watertown, Massachusetts, discovered them by chance in his neighbor’s trash pile.

Their acquisition and exposition by the ICP today offers an opportunity to reflect once again on the limits and consequences of the use of atomic energy in war, as well as the United States and other powers’ nuclear policy from the end of World War II through to today.

It is obvious that those who carry the camera do not have principally any artistic or historical intentions, but only the detached attention which is necessary for technical documentation. But today, in the eyes of those who see the snapshots of Hiroshima, they appear for what they truly are: testimony of an immense tragedy; images of a city brought to dust in a few minutes, transformed into a striking desert; shots of a chilling absence of life. Of life cancelled forever in an unexpected and unnatural flash which enflamed a sky that had seemed serene.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 13, 2019