Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Watching and Participating:
A Lesson Learned from a Visit to Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 on a bright morning, a B-29 "Superfortress" piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named the Enola Gay after his mother, dropped an atomic bomb for the first time in human history. This 9,700-pound bomb ironically nicknamed "Little Boy" exploded about 2,000 feet over the center of the sleepy port city of Hiroshima, Japan where about 300,000 people lived.

The result was civilian loss from a single bomb that was unequalled in the history of warfare. Tibbets would later write in his personal journal, "My God, what have we done?"

A strong wind generated by the blast bounced off the surrounding mountains. Almost all buildings within a 3-mile diameter were destroyed. Humans who happened to be in the area were incinerated. Subsequent fires completed the destruction. It was estimated that the initial blast and radiation effects killed almost half of the population of the city.

Two days after the bombing, the US joined the United Nations. The following day, the US bombed Nagasaki with another atomic blast, "Fat Man" that destroyed about one-third of the city and caused about 70,000 deaths.

Although there were military installations in Hiroshima-a few army supply depots, a communications center, and a naval base-it was later revealed that the choice to bomb the city was not made for military reasons. In fact, US forces had not bombed Hiroshima during the entire war. Hiroshima was chosen because it was a pristine laboratory to study the power of the first atomic explosion and to demonstrate to the world that the US would use this terrible new weapon of mass destruction.

The photographs and films made of the aftermath of the explosions are devastating to view. But these are pictures that all photojournalists and, post 9-11, all Americans need to see.

As we recently rode the train from Tokyo to Hiroshima along with Lester's 13-year old daughter, Allison, we tried to describe the pictures in our minds when we thought of "Hiroshima." We discussed the origins of these images and the reasons for their particular focus. Did we see the bomber or the bombed? Did we understand the bombing of Hiroshima from an American or Japanese point of view? Would that perspective change once we arrived in Hiroshima? We decided that these questions should matter to people who take photography seriously.

After all, being a photojournalist is a direct result of a love for images and image making. After learning how to use a pencil and a paintbrush, most of us were introduced to a simple point-and-shoot camera. And although our first attempts may have been out of focus, blurred, off-center, or incorrectly exposed, we were nevertheless awed by the magic of capturing light onto a postcard-size print. Part of the joy of photography is that high-quality pictures can be taken with relative ease-the machine itself is easy to master.

One of the first lessons photographers learn is that there is always a difference between what we remember about a scene and how it photographs. We feel disappointment in an image because it never captures just right the color of the light, the sounds and smells that are still a part of a memory, or our feelings about the subjects photographed. Another reason for the negative reaction we sometimes feel about a picture is that people in front of a camera seldom act as they would without its presence. For example, family groups with huddled poses and mandatory smiles often hide relationship problems that are known to the viewer of the picture. Film can record only what it is allowed to expose. Any meaning imposed on a photograph comes from the viewer.

Personal moments captured by photographers are a combination of space and time that often are prized possessions preserved in ornate frames and leather-bound albums. Pictures give evidence of a trip once taken, a car long since sold, and a baby who is now a grown woman. Photographs are used not simply to show others where we have been, what we possess, or whom we have loved, but to remind ourselves of those important events, things, and people in our lives.

Perhaps the most significant psychological effect of photography, however is that a picture constantly reminds subjects and photographer alike of our individual state of mind at a particular moment and place. Throughout our professional lives photographers struggle with the choice between watching and participating. But because a photographer is rarely included in the picture's frame, the decision is made-a photographer watches. Photography, therefore, teaches us to be keen observers of the environment and of human nature.

But life-altering experiences teach us that to simply watch isn't good enough. Invariably, we must also participate.

As the world watched the images on the morning and aftermath of 9-11, many commentators and concerned citizens compared the surprise attacks with that of the Japanese military forces on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i that began the US involvement in World War II.

Perhaps the better comparison with 9-11 is with the US surprise attack of Hiroshima. That's because of the 2,403 people killed during the Pearl Harbor attack, only 68 were civilians. Most of these civilians were killed through US "friendly fire," anti-aircraft shells that landed in Honolulu by mistake. Those killed in Hiroshima and New York City were almost all civilians.

But there are also large differences between the bombing of Hiroshima and New York City. The aerial attacks on the World Trade Center were the equivalent of 200 tons of TNT while the bomb exploded over Hiroshima was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. A little over one city block in lower Manhattan was destroyed compared to two-thirds of Hiroshima destroyed. About 3,000 innocent people were killed in the 9-11 attacks. About 140,000 innocent people were killed in Hiroshima.

One outgrowth of the tragedy of 9-11 is the possibility for Americans to make sense of the Hiroshima bombing.

Before we arrived in Hiroshima, Elliott wrote of the images that came to mind when she thought of the city:

"The pictures in my mind include the huge mushroom cloud and people fleeing in pain and panic, only to be incinerated by the heat and radiation. I picture terrified, helpless people, knowing that they are about to die. I picture crowds running with no place to hide. What's worse is that I picture American citizens at the time going about their lives complacently, with no appreciation of the havoc that we inflicted on the world. And, I picture Americans jubilant because of the attack, similar to the pictures of Palestinians dancing in the streets after the World Trade attack."

Our first vision of Hiroshima was, of course, of the present, but of one intentionally created out of the past. Modern Hiroshima is a thriving, vibrant city. Over a million people now live in the metropolis built from the ashes, which is why Hiroshima is sometimes called the "phoenix of Japan." The "A-Bomb Dome," the skeleton of a building that remained after the bombing and, with its rubble, is preserved as a reminder for future generations stands in quiet reverence. Across the street, there is a large professional baseball stadium where the Hiroshima Carp play to enthusiastic fans who cheer with drums and trumpets.

We felt immense sadness and some shame in the hours we spent touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with its graphic exhibits and vivid photographs. Parallels to 9-11 were hard to miss. Some of those who were severely burned jumped in the river to commit suicide as some jumped to their deaths when trapped in the Twin Towers. Messages for family members and descriptions of those missing were scratched on pieces of darkened stone or written on wooden planks in Hiroshima in an eerie precursor to the poignant flyers posted near New York City's "Ground Zero."

We returned to the sunshine of the streets and gratefully found them filled with lively shoppers as one would see in any major town. We decided to enter a yakitori bar for lunch. The waitress asked where we were from. When we said America, she smiled and clapped a greeting. She then asked if we had been to the peace museum.

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson Hiroshima has to teach Americans about 9-11. With forgiveness, not forgetfulness, humans find a way to overcome extreme adversity and forge a better way for us.

A trip to Hiroshima allowed us to think of the relationship photojournalists have between who they are as individuals, what they choose to see within a camera's viewfinder and record, and how they are affected by the experiences afforded them. The best photojournalists at and near "Ground Zero" in New York City and those responding to reactions in their local towns did more than watch and record the events of 9-11. They also participated. Rather than being objective automatons, they allowed what they saw to become a part of themselves.

The trip helped to remind us that the media images in our minds from the past are not the images that are found in the present.

We hope that any memorial or museum erected from the ashes of the World Trade Center contains words and images that show "Ground Zero" in lower Manhattan with a reverence to those killed, an understanding of the context that led to the bombing, and allow for the celebration of life that is borne from forgiveness. That's the lesson we discovered at "Ground Zero" in Hiroshima.

Women chat in front of the Hiroshima train station.
Woman enjoys the sunny day near the "A-Bomb Dome" in Hiroshima.
Cranes painted on a wall outside the train station.
Images by Paul Martin Lester

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