life in front
Surrounded by his parents, an adorable toddler all dressed in white poses on us with a laughing look, discovering in a smile his pearly teeth. On his left, his mother bent over him with a loving gaze, a broad smile lights up her face; to his right, his father, his head thrown back, guffaws with his mouth open, revealing his crooked teeth. Standing out from the black background and clothing, his face and neck bear the marks of severe burns, his ear has obviously been sewn up. On the back of his hand resting on the child’s immaculate garment, a round, dark-colored stain testifies to a graft.
Hiroshima, his pain
The caption of the photo tells us that it is the Kotani family, photographed in Hiroshima in 1957. The two parents were irradiated twelve years earlier when the American army dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city, the August 6, 1945. They met in the hallways of the hospital, got married and gave birth to baby Hiromi. Photographer Ken Domon traveled to Hiroshima for the first time on July 23, 1957 at 2:40 p.m., as noted in his notes. Deeply shocked by the extent of the disaster and its long-term consequences on the population, the photographer will return there six times until November for his own account, producing 7,800 silver negatives. In black and white, equipped with his 35 mm camera, he photographs the devastated buildings and places, meets the survivors, testifies to their physical and psychological injuries, documents the reconstructive surgery operations. As moving as they are, his photographs keep the right distance between emotion and information, without false modesty or voyeurism. This personal work will be the subject of a book published in 1958, Hiroshima. With regard to the 180 selected photographs, Domon describes the context of the shots and shares his own emotions.
A controversial shock
After years of silence, the publication of this book is a shock for the Japanese public, on a par with that experienced by Ken Domon. The population was unaware of the reality of the disaster until then, the American occupier not wanting to publicize it, a civil censorship commission took care to avoid for ten years any publication relating to the hibakusha, the victims of the nuclear bombardments. Hiroshima earned him the recognition of his peers but was also the subject of harsh criticism in public opinion, without this affecting the photographer’s determination to expose life as it is. In 1977, Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe would refer to Ken Domon’s work as the first contemporary work of art inspired by the atomic bomb to deal with the living and not the dead.
Master of Social Realism
The tragic events of World War II and the surrender of Japan exposed the great deception of wartime propaganda, to which Domon contributed for a time in the late 1930s, producing stories glorifying the efficiency and dedication of young people soldiers and nurses. After the defeat followed by the accidental death of his youngest daughter in 1946, he embarked on a resolutely social, direct and objective approach to photography, rejecting any form of staging or artifice. He professes that the two fundamental concepts in photography are reality and truth: “A realistic photograph is a photograph that loves truth, that expresses truth, that appeals to truth. From then on, he never stopped documenting the daily life of a society in the throes of upheaval, with particular attention paid to children. His collections which document the misery of children in the villages of the mining region of the island of Kyushu, Les Enfants de Chikuho followed by Le Père de la petite Rumie est mort, published in 1960, will become bestsellers which will definitively establish his fame within the archipelago.
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