Figures in a Wasteland: Mother and Child, Hiroshima, 1945
“Japanese doctors said that those who had been killed by the blast itself died instantly. But presently, according to these doctors, those who had suffered only small burns found their appetite failing, their hair falling out, their gums bleeding. They developed temperatures of 104, vomited blood, and died. It was discovered that they had lost 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles. Last week the Japanese announced that the count of Hiroshima’s dead had risen to 125,000.” — From the article “What Ended the War,” LIFE magazine, Sept. 17, 1945
Four months after the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, killing roughly 70,000 men, women and children outright and dooming tens of thousands more to either a torturous recovery or a slow death by radiation poisoning, burns or other lethal injuries and afflictions, Alfred Eisenstaedt made this portrait of a Japanese mother and her child amid the ruins of the city.
Beyond the eternal debate about the “morality” of the bombing of Hiroshima and, two days later, Nagasaki; beyond the political and scientific factors that led to the development of nuclear weapons in the first place; beyond the lingering shadow cast by the Atomic Age and the Cold War — beyond all of those considerations, Eisenstaedt’s picture quietly commands us to pay attention.
This is not a political or a philosophical or an ideological photograph. It is a portrait of two human beings in extremis.
For the questions that we read — or that we think we read — in their eyes, there’s no ready answer.