LA LETTRE DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
Tokyo: Children and war
In times of war or disaster, surrounded by death, children symbolize life. Captured in photography, their suffering can be heart wrenching, but the images can also reveal their remarkable resilience and joy for life — a true inspiration. Children and War, showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography deftly portrays their pain, bravery, and innocence through the eyes of photojournalists from World War Two through the Vietnam War.
Compiled from the museum’s 26,000-photo collection, the show includes an array of iconic and award winning images by legends such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Carl Mydans, and Ken Domon among many Japanese photographers.
Displayed at the start of the show is the iconic, The Walk to Paradise Garden, (1946) by W. Eugene Smith. Although not a photo of children in war, it is Smith’s own two children taken during a painful period in his life recovering from war wounds. As a symbol of hope for mankind, it became the final photo in the famed Family of Man exhibition first shown in 1955.
One of the most familiar is Pulitzer Prize winner Family Flee to Safety to Escape Bombs, (1965) by Kyoichi Sawada from the Vietnam War. Like all great photos, the story behind the lens is equally powerful: Le Thi Dao and her three children were discovered by American soldiers hiding in a shelter during a U.S. bombing raid near their village of Luc Thuong. To escape the bombing, the soldiers insisted they cross the river to the opposite bank where a temporary U.S. army camp had been set up. There was no bridge or boat so the only option was to swim. The terrified family struggled across. In Sawada’s photo the eye is quickly drawn to the face of the eldest son trailing behind. Looking forwards, he seems frozen with fear. Did he make it across with his family? Incredibly, they all survived. It’s written that the children, now adults, still live near the river. After receiving the award, Sawada returned to give half the prize money to the villagers along with a copy of the photo.
Photos of children taken during and after World War Two make up the bulk of the exhibition. Some of the most profound were taken by Yosuke Yamahata, a day after the Nagasaki atomic bombing near ground zero. In one, a boy is seen carrying his wounded brother on his back as he searches for relatives. Another shows an infant receiving treatment, but too weak to cry. One of the most memorable is Boy with rice ball (Aug. 10, 1945). The young boy’s dirty face and ragged clothes are in stark contrast to the precious, clean white rice ball he holds in his hand, given out as emergency rations. Yamahata wrote that the child and his mother (shown together in a separate photo) were too weak to eat.
With starvation rampant during war years, hunger and food are vivid images throughout the show. The horrific ravages of starvation are displayed in the bodies of Malnourished children in a facility for the homeless, (1945) by Shunkichi Kikuchi. In contrast, Family Portrait at Prayers for the Wheat Harvest (1946) by Kageyama Koyo reveals the grace of nature and power of food, as a wholesome family in the countryside is about to begin a meal. For poor schoolboys, a simple lunch of bread and rice is a feast in “Munching on a roll” (1953).
Children’s remarkable will to survive is poignantly revealed in a series of orphaned street urchins by Tadahiko Hayashi titled Days in the Dregs taken just after the WWII. Included in the exhibition are Many kids were shining shoes (Ueno) (1946) showing a barefoot boy about 10-years-old vigorously working on a man’s shoes at Tokyo’s busy Ueno train station.
A child’s innate sense of play and humor, despite all odds, is warmly shown in Konosuke Ishii’s portrait War Orphan: Mr Kyushu (1946) of a ragged boy mimicking a pipe-smoking gentleman reading a magazine.
While powerless to fight against war, misaligned government policy and discrimination, the portraits of children by Toyo Miyatake in the Manzanar Relocation Center in California clearly reveal the irony and injustice of their circumstances. Miyatake and his family were interned at the camp, one of ten relocation centers in the U.S. where about 125,000 Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War Two from 1942-45. Photos in the show from Miyatake’s Manzanar Relocation Center series include one moving image of three boys standing at the camp’s barbed-wire fence looking out across the desert towards unattainable freedom.
The cruel chemistry used in modern warfare and its genetic effects on children is shockingly revealed by Goro Nakamura in the gentle portrait of Jennie, a little girl with a deformed arm. Her father, Daniel Rooney, was an American infantryman in Vietnam exposed to U.S. bombing containing DNA-damaging defoliant chemicals. Jennie was born after her father returned to the U.S. In Vietnam, an estimated 500,000 children have been born with birth defects as a result of the massive defoliant spraying campaign during the 1961-71 war.
The museum has written that photojournalism reached its peak during the war years between WWII and Vietnam. But I disagree. Print media may have moved to the Internet, but photojournalism remains a vitally important social messenger and historical record. Through the eyes of photojournalists to come, the stories of children — their antics, sorrows and delights — will continue to enchant and move us.
Children and War
Through July 10
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
〒153-0062 Yebisu Garden Place
1-13-3 Mita Meguro-ku Tokyo
Opening hours: 10:00 to 18:00(until 20:00 on Thursdays and Fridays)
Photo © Gagosian Gallery, New York. White Cube, London.
Original post: Tokyo: Children and war