New York-Based Photographer Tells Stories of War Survivors One Portrait at a Time

“What happened to the people under the mushroom cloud?”

When Brooklyn native Paule Saviano was in high school – like any typical American teenager – he learned about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of World War II with “Before” and “After” photographs: The mushroom cloud, then the resulting wasteland.

“I thought, ‘What happened to the people under the mushroom cloud?’ No one really talked about them,” says Saviano, a New York-based photographer who specializes in portraits, at the opening reception of From Above, an exhibition of his latest work on display at West Park Presbyterian Church until August 10.

Paule Saviano, photography, NYC, Hibakusha, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Japan, WWII, World War II, no nukes, peace, atomic bomb, survivors, West Park Presbyterian Church

Paule Saviano at the opening reception of his From Above exhibition

He discovered what happened beneath those mushroom clouds of 1945 when he went to Nagasaki in 2008 to interview and photograph eleven Hibakusha, the Japanese term for survivors of the atomic bombings. What was supposed to be a one-week trip turned into a two-month journey for Saviano, who ended up photographing Hibakusha from Hiroshima and survivors of the World War II fire bombings of Tokyo.

After Saviano exhibited his black-and-white portraits at Gallery EF in Tokyo in March 2009, he photographed fire-bombing survivors in Dresden, Germany, eventually compiling more than 50 portraits into a book, From Above, which was published in 2011.

Paule Saviano, photography, NYC, Hibakusha, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Japan, WWII, World War II, no nukes, peace, atomic bomb, survivors, West Park Presbyterian Church

Keiji Nakazawa. Portrait by Paule Saviano.

Of the eleven photographs in his current exhibition, only one, that of the late manga artist and writer Keiji Nakazawa of Barefoot Gen fame, appears in Saviano’s book. The other ten are portraits he has taken in the last two years, including that of distinguished Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who was in New York this May for the screening of The Face of Another at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Accompanying each stunning portrait is a brief quote that encapsulates part of each subject’s unique and heart-wrenching experience of war. Nakadai, 81, tells the chilling story of running down the street with his neighbor during an air raid in Tokyo. After some time he looked down to discover he was holding only the little girl’s hand; the rest of her had been blown away.

In the midst of the horror, the subjects of Saviano’s exhibition somehow found peace, or at least the determination to find peace. Yasuaki Yamashita, a Nagasaki Hibakusha who moved to Mexico in 1968, says, “Even in the midst of tragic conditions, nature continued to provide us with a blessing – a sense of peace and tranquility.”

Takashi Thomas Tanemori, who was at school when the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, says, “My life, since I was eight years old, has been a long struggle to understand the demise of my hometown, the confiscation of my childhood, and the horrible indignity of a bomb that marked the beginning of the nuclear age. It has led me to finding peace in my heart and becoming a man of peace.”

Tomiko Morimoto West, a Hiroshima Hibakusha who lives in Upstate New York, says that her “challenging life began from then on because I was the only one left.” West will be the keynote speaker at the Interfaith Peace Gathering commemorating the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 5, also at West Park Presbyterian Church.

To see more photos from the opening reception, please visit JapanCulture•NYC’s Flickr page.

The portraits are Saviano’s way of communicating the past, of expressing each painful detail in the hopes that something like this never happens again.

Since his project began, he has expanded the scope of his work, finding subjects in England, Poland and the Czech Republic. “The people in Dresden made me promise that I would go to Poland,” says Saviano. He’s also planning a trip to Malta, one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war.

Saviano didn’t plan on a book, worldwide exhibitions, and continued travel to photograph hundreds of brave individuals when he stepped off the bullet train in Nagasaki in 2008, but he continues to tell the stories of Hibakusha and survivors of World War II, one portrait at a time.

“If From Above inspires just one more person to listen to or think about a Hibakusha and the effects of nuclear weapons, or helps influence a Hibakusha to tell his story,” Saviano told JapanCulture•NYC in 2012, “then I will feel like I have accomplished something with my efforts.”

From Above – Paule Saviano Photography Exhibition runs through Sunday, August 10 at West Park Presbyterian Church, 165 W. 86th Street at Amsterdam Avenue. The exhibition is in conjunction with events commemorating the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, taking place on August 5 and August 8.