From Feb. 4 to 27, New York photographer Paule Saviano is exhibiting 22 images from his series of Tokyo and Dresden firebombing survivors in one of the few buildings in Tokyo to survive World War II. The show takes place at the same time as Saviano’s exhibition in Dresden, Germany, commemorating the 1945 Feb. 13-14 firebombing of that city.
Saviano’s work, a continuation of his “From Above” project that he began in 2008 with photographs of the Nagasaki hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), is showing in Gallery ef, a conversion of an Edo Period-style warehouse that was built in 1868.
Saviano’s images, which are all taken in natural daylight, are simple, tightly framed black-and-white portraits that engage the viewer to focus on the dignified expressions of the survivors’ faces.
In a recent interview at the gallery, Saviano talked about the inspiration behind his project. What did the process of shooting involve? We arranged two-hour appointments in which we would talk for an hour. I would say, “Listen, you can talk about anything you want,” and most people would talk about the day (of bombing) and what happened to them. They were storytellers. I needed to figure out who that person was, and I needed their trust.
Were any of your subjects wary of you because you are American? To be honest, that never came up. They were always surprised at my age, though. One woman I photographed, Sachiko Matsuo, told me, “My grandkids are your age, I was expecting someone older.” At the time I was 34 to 35.
I never ran into someone who was aggressive, they were always very open. I was shocked. I spoke to people who hadn’t spoken about this a lot, yet they were always very honest and brave.
Wasn’t it an emotionally difficult project? What people don’t realize is that on March 10, 1945, more people died in Tokyo than when the two atomic bombs were dropped. A hibakusha, Masatoshi Tsunenari, described the atomic bomb pretty accurately: “When I closed my eyes, the world became a completely different place.” The atomic bomb was a split-second explosion and everything was flattened. During the Tokyo firebombings, they were chased by fire and some jumped into rivers: The death was so random.
I have now listened to 52 accounts — from Hiroshima, Tokyo, Dresden and Nagasaki, and they are all very difficult, but I have also seen strength in each person. All of them showed that there is not one correct way to overcome something.
I think the general perception of war is, “Ok, it’s over and everything goes back to normal.” But that’s not true, and that is something I learned. What I realized is that 66 years later, these people are still dealing with what happened. There was no right or wrong way of overcoming such an experience, and a lot of them didn’t even understand what had happened to them until 50 years later. A lot of the hibakusha didn’t start speaking about it until about a couple of years ago.
There are things you are never going to learn in a history book; you have to actually meet these people to understand that aspect. It is a very intimidating and depressing subject, but you have to look at these people and say, “They are that strong to overcome this,” and I try to bring that out in the photos.
I’m not photographing victims, I’m photographing survivors. They struggled for a long time, but they overcame — physically and mentally. I hope that when you look at the photos you see “perseverance”.
The thing that people often ask me is “Why didn’t you photograph any of the scars?” My response to that is that I was photographing inner emotions; I want people to understand that this is a lot more than a scar or a keloid.
Why did you want to do this project? I wanted to find out what happened, the human part. Every time I go back, it is out of a personal interest. One thing that I would say is that Nagasaki and Hiroshima are two of the most important places in the world, because there you can talk to people who survived the atomic bomb. Once that generation leaves, however, their voices go silent. This is the last opportunity to speak to those people.
What was the biggest revelation for you personally? That survivors are brave enough to speak about this. Also, how forgiving they are. If I were them, I would be angry and holding a grudge; the amount of bravery and honor they have is surprising. And they always welcomed me. I appreciate and respect that a lot. I am amazed: If they can find ways to survive, forgive, tell their story and persevere, almost anything is possible.
“From Above: Dresden/Tokyo” at Gallery ef runs till Feb. 27; admission free; open 12 p.m.-8 p.m, closed Tues. For more information, visit www. gallery-ef.com