Not long after their genesis, cameras started appearing on battlefields to document the victors and the vanquished. Photography’s role in conflict grew over time, evolving to include aerial surveillance and powerful propaganda.
In 1942, Derrick Woollacott entered the military and ended up kickstarting his career as a photographer at age 19. Lacking formal education after 14 and the financial means to own a camera, this was his best shot. After basic training in the Royal Air Force, he proceeded to photography boot camp in Farnborough, England, learning the mechanics of cameras, darkroom basics and all tasks related to reconnaissance missions, and afterward studied under the renowned portrait photographer Gordon Anthony at the Air Ministry in London.
From 1945 on, he was posted at locations in Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Singapore, and almost seven months after Japan announced its surrender, Woollacott arrived in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). Stationed at the Iwakuni military base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, he took fairly standard shots of events and activities for the base newspaper and returned to his young wife in London in time for Christmas 1946.
Seventy years after his return to the U.K., a selection of black-and-white photographs that Woollacott had taken with his Rolleiflex and carefully rationed film during his off-time have been proudly hung by his relatives on the walls of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, an institution that is just slightly older than these striking images. Perhaps, in the young soldier’s mind, they manifested the BCOF’s mission of demonstrating the virtues of democracy, but in hindsight, they impart so much more.
After returning to Britain, Woollacott continued his career in the visual medium — first, overseeing the photograph division of major retailer Marks & Spencer, and later, by indulging his inner inventor and pursuing commercial solutions for easy color photo-processing.
Woollacott’s four children, while growing up in London in the ’50s and ’60s, were constantly reminded of his time in Japan by a small selection of photos that hung on walls of their home. In fact, their father so cherished his memories of that time, recalled one of his two daughters, Valerie Neale, that he enlarged his photo of the famous Kintai Bridge near Iwakuni and used it to wallpaper their dining room.
Despite this, his children never saw all 99 negatives of what Neale calls the “Japan Series” until late in Woollacott’s life. The majority of these personal photos had been stored in a box in the attic. That box eventually turned out to be a gateway for Neale into a glowing yet hazy corner of her father’s past. Thanks to her research, serendipitous Facebook connections and eventually a support network that grew over the past year in Japan, these remarkable photos are now on embarking on a new mission.
The images on display at the FCCJ include a few glimpses of post-atomic bomb devastation in Hiroshima, but the shots hardly document the horrors of war. Most of Woollacott’s photos, taken in the Seto Inland Sea area, are skillfully composed portraits of survivors resolutely continuing with their lives, tilling the land, preserving traditions and dealing the best way they can with this new and changing world.
During her first visit to Tokyo, Neale emphasized that her father didn’t have the agenda of a photojournalist. His vision was of an idealized Japan. “I don’t think he was politically adept. … All of his photos of Japan are of heroic peasants,” she said. “I know Japan was not like that. If he was looking for gritty, gnarly subjects, they would not be hard to find. He was clearly not looking for that.”
Nevertheless, aside from an understandable attraction toward idyllic exoticism, there is also a clear desire to humanize Japanese and make a deeper connection.
The legacy of the Japanese government, however, was a completely different matter. Neale clearly remembers her father’s wrath upon hearing that the Duke of Edinburgh would attend Emperor Hirohito’s funeral.
“I was so shocked because I thought my dad absolutely loved Japan, but it became clear that he loved the Japanese people but still hated what Hirohito stood for,” she said.
Although he might have had strong feelings for the Japanese people and its countryside, the topic of the war and his travels were rarely discussed in detail. In the ’70s, Neale settled with her husband, TV presenter and musician Rick Jones, in California and communication with her father became less frequent. It was not until after his death in 1991 that Neale revisited that hidden box of memories and decided to turn them into a scrapbook. Then, in 2012, after scanning all the photos, she upgraded that family memento into something more accessible, a self-printed book titled “Derrick Woollacott: The Making of a Photographer” that traced not only his time overseas but his evolution as a budding photographer.
Through a connection on Facebook, a PDF of the book made it into the hands of Tokyo-based musician/artist Morgan Fisher, whose enthusiasm about the photos got the ball rolling locally. Fisher introduced it to photographer Torin Boyd, who volunteered to clean up the old negatives, as well as Hasselblad Japan, which graciously offered large-scale scanners for this exhibition.
At the exhibition, the book helps fills in a lot of the holes about Woollacott’s early career, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
“One of the things that is so frustrating about this whole series is that I have these absolutely fabulous photographs but I don’t have the story behind them,” Neale said.
Anyone seeing these images will naturally want to know the full story, but for December 2015, the undeniable power of these images speak for themselves.
“Everyone seems to be telling me that they are unusual and valuable in the sense that they have been hidden away so long,” Neale said, following a positive response at the exhibition’s opening on Dec. 7. “It’s just reinforcing what I thought all along: That these fabulous photographs deserve to be seen a bit more.”
“They Touched My Heart” will be on display in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s main bar until Jan. 8. Admission free.