On War, Image and Photography…a Literate Lens Look at “Gods”
“If everyone could be there just once, to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone’s leg off – if everyone could be there to see the fear and the grief, just one time, then they’d understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.”
—James Nachtwey, photographer
Last week, I was thrilled to be the subject of a thought-provoking interview on the photography/literature blog The Literate Lens, which is written and curated by my friend Sarah Coleman. She covered some very interesting new angles in her take on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, and in particular was curious about my use of so many photographs by the Japanese photographer Hayashi Tadahiko. Here’s our exchange on the subject:
LL: Can you tell us something about Hayashi Tadahiko, the Japanese photographer who took several of the photographs you feature in the book?
JCE: I discovered him through that photograph I mentioned before—“Dancer on a Rooftop”—but realized upon researching a little that he’d taken a few other photos I’d admired in the past, including an iconic one of the Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai about to topple off a bar stool in the Ginza. He was born in 1918 into a family of photographers—interestingly, his mother was the real talent in the family—so he learned the basics of the trade growing up, and was skilled as a portrait artist. He went to photography school in Tokyo, where he was apparently such a big partier (maybe how he got that great shot of Dazai?) that his family finally cut him off financially. He spent the latter part of the Pacific War in Beijing and then returned to Tokyo, where he took pictures of orphans (like “Shoeshine Boy,” which I also use in the novel) and the high life alike.
One thing that was particularly interesting about his style to me was that he wasn’t afraid to stage things: he clearly wanted his images to tell stories, and he would use props and other devices to tell them.
In another picture of his—of the woman walking in rubble, next to a pillar with “What was the point” scrawled on it (at left)—it is said that he actually painted the graffiti himself. His interest in narrative is also evidenced by the subject of his first book of photographs, titled Shosetsu no Furusato, for which he travelled around Japan photographing settings that have been described in various Japanese novels.
Sarah also had a followup question about how I see the differences between conveying war in words and images–which has been bouncing around in my thoughts over the last week. Frankly, it’s a hard one to answer–and the truth is, I think photos (like the extraordinary one with which Sarah starts off her piece) probably do a better job at exposing the brutality and shock inherent in war–which is likely why war photography and peace activism are so deeply intertwined.
To be honest, I don’t think anything I could write in description of the man in the top picture would do justice to his actual appearance, and the instant, visceral story that goes with that appearance. But I do think words can give depth and complexity to war in a way that pictures alone can’t. For instance, according to the caption the man was attacked and disfigured because he didn’t support the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Those words for me summon up a whole series of questions that can’t be answered by image alone: when did he protest the genocide? How? To whom? What had he seen that made him protest? What happened to his attackers? Where is he today? In other words, I think image and word each bring something different to the narrative table. Which is why for me they are such a powerful combination–in fiction as well as in journalism.
The exchange made me surf a bit for other war photographs that both tell stories and raise narrative questions. Here are a few I found:
You can find Sarah’s full interview with me in The Literate Lens here.