• Museums

U.S. Photographer’s Historic Nagasaki Picture on Display at Iwate Pref. Exhibition

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Makoto Yamazaki holds a photo taken by U.S. photographer Joe O’Donnell, depicting a boy carrying a dead baby following the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

An exhibition featuring pictures taken by U.S. photojournalist Joe O’Donnell — known for his historic depiction of a Japanese boy carrying a dead baby on his back in Nagasaki in 1945 — opened in Shiwa, Iwate Prefecture, on Friday.

The exhibition at Shiwa Studio in the town features about 40 photos taken by O’Donnell, who died in 2007, at the age of 85. The photos have been kept by Makoto Yamazaki, 85, who had close ties with the photographer. Yamazaki plans to talk about O’Donnell during an exhibition side-event on Sunday.

O’Donnell arrived in Japan as a U.S. military photographer in September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. During his seven-month stay, he visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bombings, taking about 300 photos with his personal camera.

Yamazaki, who worked as a church director in Morioka, met O’Donnell by chance in 1992 at a church in Tennessee. O’Donnell showed Yamazaki some of the photos he had taken in Japan, including the photo of the boy and the baby, known in Japan as “Yakiba ni Tatsu Shonen” (The boy standing by the crematory). O’Donnell explained to Yamazaki that the baby was dead, and the boy was waiting in a line to cremate the body.

Upon hearing this story, Yamazaki — an elementary schooler when the war ended — could not suppress his tears, partly because he has three younger siblings himself.

In the photo, the boy stands straight with his lips pursed while carrying a young child on his back. Nagasaki City and others have tried to identify the boy and discern the time and location of the photo but have been unsuccessful to date.

During a 2019 visit to Japan, Pope Francis placed a copy of the picture on the podium during a speech calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Yamazaki recalled how O’Donnell told him that the use of atomic bombs was “wrong.” O’Donnell held photo exhibitions in the United States to convey the reality of the devastation caused by atomic bombs — an act that attracted harsh criticism from U.S. war veterans. When Yamazaki told O’Donnell he wanted to exhibit his photos in Japan, the American happily agreed.

O’Donnell visited Japan in 1992 to attend the exhibition in Morioka. While in Japan, however, he developed an unexplained fever and a full-body rash. Yamazaki took O’Donnell to hospital, where the American was told it was highly likely he was suffering from an atomic bomb-related disease caused by exposure to residual radiation when he visited Japan shortly after the war.

O’Donnell remained concerned about the boy in the photo until his death in 2007. The Morioka church where Yamazaki served as director purchased about 50 photos from O’Donnell; Yamazaki has carefully looked after them ever since.

“I hope people [who see the photos] will feel the thoughts of Mr. O’Donnell, who tried to understand the experiences of people at the bombed sites,” Yamazaki said.

The exhibition runs through July 23, from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily (closed July 18). Admission is free.