"Nevada Test Site" & "The Town Lies Dead"
Emma Kates-Shaw, Swarthmore College, Class of 2016
These two photos were taken from a packet entitled "Humans Cannot Coexist With Nuclear Weapons", a photo examination of damage and after-effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the suffering caused by nuclear tests. The packet was given to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in the late 20th century. It was created as a result of a meeting of the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, which formed shortly after the U.S. first tested the Hydrogen Bomb in 1955, at the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. The photo set is an attempt to publicize the damage caused by bombings, and was most likely created by a subset task force at the conference. It contains large printed images of areas that suffered damage due to Atomic Bombs, and also photos of victims, test sites, and recovery processes. Displayed here is Print 14: "Nevada Test Site," a photo of the desert where the atomic bomb was tested in Nevada in 1951. The caption below the photograph briefly describes the effects that the testing of the nuclear bomb had on the surrounding community. This is Print 10: "The Town Lies Dead," a photo of Hiroshima at about noon on August 7th, 1945, a day after the bomb was dropped. As the caption explains, the landscape is decimated and nothing living remains. The images have visually similar compositions; viewed side by side, they beg viewers to examine the pain and suffering caused by the use of the atomic bomb on different sides of the globe. They encourage us to ask ourselves, as citizens of America, what role protection and vulnerability play in regard to our national identity and collective feeling of safety.
Striking in the image of the Nevada test site is the human presence in an otherwise deserted landscape. Contrasted with the landscape on the right, which is deserted in an entirely different way, the nonchalance of this image is glaring. The caption illuminates the damage felt by the surrounding community because of the tests in 1951, including increased cases of cancer in young children, shortening of the adult lifespan, and damage to livestock and other farm products. However, this image presents a calm picture of human interaction with the test site. The undated image appears to depict the site at a period of time long after the time in which it was actively being used as a test location. This gives the image a touristy feel, increasing the feeling of nonchalance in a historically brutal location. The presence of humans in conjunction with the caption detailing the damages of the tests, while contradictory, gives insight into the ability for people in the U.S. to reflect on disasters from a safe distance.
This ability was not afforded, however, to those who experienced the effects of the Atomic Bomb in Japan, and this is illustrated by the image on the right, which is jarringly more powerful and grim. The photo depicts the destruction and devastation caused by the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima in 1945. The image was taken at noon on August 7th, one day after the bomb was dropped, and it is accurately titled "The Town Lies Dead." The foreground of the photograph has no specific focus, rather the low-angled view looks out across a pile of rubble where, presumably, buildings once stood. Smoke rises from fragmented buildings in the midground, and in the distant background the decimated Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall (now known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Genbaku Dome, or A-Bomb Dome) can be seen. The iconic skeletal dome serves as a visual key for the location of the photograph, which otherwise depicts anonymous rubble. In contrast to the human presence in the image on the left, there is nothing living remaining in this view of the flattened city of Hiroshima. The image calls up feelings of despair and helplessness, and makes obvious the difference in pain felt by Japan as opposed to that felt in America as a result of the tests of the Atomic Bomb. The appearance of utter devastation of the city leaves the possibility for repair difficult to imagine.
The shock of the scale of this attack was felt all over the world. Not only was the devastation of the landscape unlike anything the world had ever seen, but also the reality of the physical and emotional damage done to such a massive number of human beings was heartbreaking and appalling. Around 90,000 people were killed either immediately or within the next many months. Additionally, an innumerable amount of people suffered from injuries that affected them for the remainder of their lives. Most commonly, people suffered from radiation burns, which forever marred large parts of their bodies. Others were affected by the radiation later in their lives—at least 1,900 people died from radiation-related cancers in the years following the bombings. As stated in the Declaration of International Meeting of the World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, the attack "denied humans either to live or die as humans. The Hibakusha, who survived the days have continued to suffer from wounds in both mind and body" (Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, 2013).
The Atomic Bomb serves as a testament to the scope of human creation and human devastation. During the first phases of developing the bomb, the scientists creating it were unsure of what the results would be. The Atomic Bomb was created by humans, but even its creators, in reacting to the first ever test of the bomb, were blown away by the inhuman scale of its effects. They resorted to theological language to explain the power of the bomb: Robert Oppenheimer, the leading scientist behind the project of creating the atomic bomb, stated that the actual explosion brought to mind a verse from the Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita, which reads, "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds" (Titus 2001). "New York Times" journalist William L. Laurence, witnessing the explosion, explained the experience as witnessing "The Birth of the World—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: Let there be light" (Titus 2001). The immense power of the atomic bomb placed it beyond the realm of average human understanding. The experiences of pain and recovery took vastly different paths for countries and individuals on different sides of conflict. The damage the bombings caused to human beings was completely incomprehensible, but even more so was the idea that this damage was ordered and carried out by other human beings. One must examine the roles assigned to the countries involved in these conflicts: America as powerful instigator, and Japan as victim. The protection given to American citizens essentially placed their lives at a higher value than those of the Japanese people who were to be harmed by this attack. Conscious of the effect of the tests on American citizens, it is of the utmost importance that in trying to come to terms with this atrocity, a certain angle of perspective must first be achieved. Education efforts such as this packet are steps on the way to achieving this perspective, and must continually be circulated and examined in order to prevent history from repeating itself.