Post-Memories of Hiroshima

In 1946 my father (pictured left in the photo above) served in Japan as a part of an Australian contingent of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF). A carpenter by trade, his job was to assist in the rebuilding of homes in the city of Hiroshima Prefecture, a city still suffering the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on its population in August 1945, instantly killing tens of thousands and reducing the city into a desert of rubble that stretched miles from the hypocentre.

I can still recall the first time I saw my father’s photos of Hiroshima, I had discovered the images whilst fossicking through the hall cupboard which always contained curios that were no longer of interest to the previous owners. Amongst the unwanted china figurines that once belonged to my grandmother, my sisters’ scarves decorated with caricatures of ‘The Beatles’ I came across a battered shoebox and lifting the lid I was pleasantly surprised to find a large collection of black and white photographs.

When I leafed through the photographs I soon became aware that the yellowing B&W images were very much products of a past that did not include myself. Here I am reminded of the shock felt by Barthes (1993) when he looked upon a photograph of his mother as a child, his gaze separated by an enormous temporal chasm. Amongst the snapshots of my parents and their parents, numerous weddings and anonymous smiling faces I came across a series of images documenting the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On looking at the photos, I was both captivated and repulsed. Skeletons of steel buildings lurched like wounded beasts in a landscape reminiscent of an ancient ruin.

I later discovered that packets of such images had at that time been made available to visitors of Hiroshima as souvenirs, but it wasn’t until reaching adulthood that I later realised the influence of these images on my understanding of both my father and the city depicted in the photographs. The souvenir photographs of the aftermath of the bomb in Hiroshima became collocated with family snaps where I could not look at one without thinking of the other.

figure 2. Mother with children, Hiroshima 1947.

Of particular interest to me is a photograph of a mother standing in a ramshackle street (see figure 3), she is holding a small baby, and a young girl, possibly her daughter, stands by her side. The image is one of the few remaining photographs my father had taken during his time in Hiroshima. The handwritten inscription on the back reads, “This will give you an idea of the morale here”. My father had once told me that the atomic bomb had inflicted terrible injuries upon the population and during his service he had seen many sights that had stayed with him over the years. He recalled a young girl standing in the street, her skin hanging off her legs, her body covered in Keloid scars.

My father had never talked much about his experiences in Japan, and in later conversations with my siblings I discovered that I had been the only child with which my father had chosen to share his memories of the event. I was the one chosen to remember his impressions of the early reconstruction Hiroshima. As is noted by Gibbon “Postmemory carries an obligation to continue that process of working through or over the event or experience”(2007, p.73), and it is this very sense of responsibility that bore down upon me like a great weight, for I have grown up in the shadow of Hiroshima. My father’s stories and photographs have shaped both my personal memories and my imaginings of the people, places and emotions that had populated my father’s experiences in Hiroshima.

The family photograph has become an important artefact for the preservation of memories, connecting the past with the present. More than just a document of proof, the photograph is an active memory site, as it enables a viewer to situate his/herself both within and outside of the frame, promoting an empathy with both the photographer and subject. We suggest that such images, whether still or moving, act like temporal portals into places that can no longer be reached, they provide glimpses into a time that is always past and can never be present.

In combination with the retelling of family histories, family photographs and artefacts of traumatic experience can also contribute towards the building of vivid emotional maps that are then projected upon the locations associated with traumatic experience. Trigg (2009) suggests that traumatic events can materially alter  ‘natural’ environments. In the mind of the secondary witness, postmemory can transform contemporary landscapes into potent memory sites.

As Downing observes “Our imaginative remembrance of things past creates our histories and actively shapes our present and future experience” (2000, p.71). And it is the very intrusion of the present that plays a role in ongoing slow erasure of our emotional maps and memories of the past. Although photographs and home movies may help authentic stories and/or assist with the remembrance of significant events, I sometimes wonder if there is also a value in forgetting.



Barthes, R. (1993). Camera Lucida : reflections on photography. London, Vintage Books.

Downing, F. (2000). Remembrance and the design of place, Texas A&M University press, College Station.

Gibbons, J. (2007). Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of recollection and remembrance, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

Trigg, D. (2009). The place of Trauma: Memory, hauntings, and the temporality of ruins, Memory Studies (2009); 2;87.


~ by Dean on December 14, 2010.

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