NEW YORK — For professional photographer Paule Saviano, a chance visit to a gallery in Tokyo set in motion a project spanning more than three years, taking him from the United States to Japan and then to Germany to capture images of World War II survivors.
The idea for his latest exhibit, “From Above: Dresden/Tokyo,” shown in Germany and Japan through February, took root on a 2006 visit to Tokyo.
The Brooklyn native said that while touring Gallery ef in the Asakusa district, he was struck by a photo of a warehouse, built in 1868, set against a bombed Tokyo landscape.
That day he learned of the extensive damage that occurred March 10, 1945, in what is regarded as the most destructive bombing raid in history. American B-29s carried out a firebombing raid that killed some 100,000 people and decimated much of the capital.
“The photo of a burned-out Asakusa was an education for me,” the 36-year-old said. “I had never seen or known much of the Tokyo firebombings.”
Saviano voiced awe at how the city rebuilt itself from the “scorched earth,” with the warehouse in the picture being transformed into the gallery in 1997.
“The curiosity from the photo was the inspiration to find out more,” he explained. “I saw the destruction of material, but I needed to go further.”
Ever inquisitive, the history buff also wanted to know more about the human toll the war took on regular people. Just before leaving Japan he learned of atomic bomb survivors who spoke about their experiences at museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I thought what an interesting idea, what an interesting concept,” Saviano said, hoping to one day communicate with them.
Although he returned to Japan the next year to put on an exhibit called “Striptease Burlesque,” he was unable to visit either city. But he didn’t give up on his quest.
Back in New York, he reached out to museums in both places. In September 2008 he finally arrived in Nagasaki for a chance to interview and photograph 11 hibakusha.
Over an intense three-day period he spent hours shooting photos. “It was a conversation,” he recalled. “All the stories were different.”
Once back in Tokyo, the project took an unexpected turn. Following up on a suggestion to include firebomb survivors, he extended his initial 10-day stay to two months.
“My pictures are all about emotions and expression,” he said of the black-and-white photos he takes. “I photograph the inside of people.”
As Saviano’s portraits capture the strength of the human spirit, rather than the atrocities of the war, the museum, impressed by his work, exhibited them the following March.
The project then snowballed. Last June his photos were taken to the Nagasaki Peace Museum, where a powerful meeting between the Nagasaki and Tokyo survivors took place.
Since the atomic bombings have overshadowed the Tokyo firebombings, the hibakusha are well-organized and recognized, while the others are not.
“That is the spirit of my project — bringing people together,” he added.
In Nagasaki for a second time, he took more photos. Among the subjects was internationally recognized activist Senji Yamaguchi, who despite ill health spoke with him for 45 minutes from his bedside.
At 14, Yamaguchi was digging outside when he saw the flash after the bomb exploded. He suffered a lifetime of physical ailments, including severe scarring on his face and body.
“I see his eyes, not his keloid,” Saviano explained of his decision not to focus on his scars. He hoped the image conveyed how the bomb “could not take his spirit away from him.”
After the exhibit, Saviano was contacted by a Japanese publisher for a book deal, but he needed photos of Hiroshima survivors, taken in the city that he never visited.
Koko Tanimoto Kondo, an activist and the daughter of the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who helped bring 25 young women to the United States for reconstructive surgery, stepped in to help him.
There he photographed more than a dozen other survivors, even capturing Kondo and her mother for a two-generation hibakusha portrait.
Saviano later met Matashichi Oishi, a survivor of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5, the fishing boat known as the Lucky Dragon that was out at sea when the Americans tested a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in 1954.
Many fishermen in the area were exposed to radioactive ash, which Oishi believes caused about half of his 23-member crew to die. As a vocal activist, Saviano considers him to be a vital part of the exhibit and book due out in July.