I know, it’s a bit odd to write about Hiroshima in January. The time to remember the atomic bomb that was dropped there, bringing the War in the Pacific to an end, is August, the anniversary of the event. But I’ve been thinking about Hiroshima because of a visit to the Conflict:Time:Photography exhibition at the Tate Modern which shows the legacy of war as artists and photographers have captured it in retrospect. Looking at the recollections of Hiroshima in the show brought back my memories of visiting the city.
It’s a long time since I went there; so long that I don’t have any of my own photographs of the place. In those far-off days, taking loads of photographs was something only Japanese tourists did, one of those odd Japanese habits that the English found faintly amusing. Well, we’re all Japanese tourists now.
The most interesting thing about Hiroshima today is how normal it is. It’s a modern, thriving city, a few hours on the bullet train from Tokyo. That, in itself, is strange. They said it would take fifty years after the bomb was dropped before it would be safe to go back to Hiroshima because of the remaining radiation.
They haven’t rebuilt the centre of the city, where the bomb was dropped, though. Instead there’s a park – the Peace Park. And in the centre of the Peace Park is the Atomic Dome – practically the only building that survived the blast, due to it’s unique domed shape. I can’t tell you how affecting it is to stand next to this building and imagine the experiences of people on that day.
To give you an idea of what it was like when the bomb dropped, there is a harrowingly detailed account of it in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, including two scale models of the city – one showing it before the blast, the other after it.
But back to the Tate. The idea of their exhibition is to show the passage of time by ordering works in terms of how long after the event they were created. So at the very beginning is this photo of Hiroshima, which dates from less than twenty minutes after the explosion.
Later there are photos of radiation survivors from twenty-five years after, and later still are photos by Hiromi Tsuchida of objects in the memorial museum that survived the blast, like this lunch box. The peas and rice inside are carbonised; the body of its owner was never found.
In a way, the before and after photos I’ve used in this post bookend the exhibition by starting before the blast even happened and ending in the present day. Hiroshima unscarred before the bomb and Hiroshima rebuilt after the bomb – not a war zone but a city. An uplifting thought to take away from a exhibition about war.
The Tate exhibition is not just about Hiroshima, though that’s what I’ve focused on. It contains work from the mid nineteenth century to the present and ranges across the world, from the Crimea in 1853 through the first and second world wars to Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan. It challenges us to look back, and consider the past from the different vantage points of elapsed time. Well worth a visit.
Conflict:Time:Photography continues at the Tate Modern until 15 March. Tickets are £14.50.