Images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reduced to pulverized rubble, don’t look much different than the images of Hamamatsu, a mid-size city devastated by traditional aerial bombardment, made by John Swope, a U.S. photographer who captured the tragedy of Japan without ever visiting the sites of the world’s first military use of nuclear power. Paradoxically, images of nuclear destruction did two things: They helped develop a powerful sense of horror and aversion about nuclear warfare, and yet established visual equivalence between forms of destruction. That sense that misery is misery, no matter the cause, has challenged people (and governments) to think rationally about both the danger and hope offered by nuclear power.
More than 65 years after Hiroshima, and once again in Japan, the world confronts a similar question: Which is more frightful? A wave of water and mud sweeping away everything in its path? Or a distant industrial facility, emitting blasts of radiation that experts can quantify but not contextualize or explain in a way that makes them comprehensible to the vast majority of people?
With the use of the atom bomb against civilian population areas in Japan, the world birthed a new kind of fear, the invisible and terrifying power of radiological poisoning and environmental destruction. This fear bound people to their governments in new and powerful ways. Only the government could manage these forces, and often it seemed only governments had the expertise to explain the dangers and opportunities of nuclear power. One had to trust the government in ways that went beyond any individual’s ability to calculate danger.
The contrast between the two visual styles of disaster in Japan not only recalls the country’s past as the first ground zero — images of the tsunami aftermath superficially look like Hiroshima, while images of the nuclear plant recall the long decades of suffering unleashed by the atom bomb — it reminds us how far we have yet to go to make sense of fear in the modern world. Repeated viewing of tsunami videos, with their strong sense of human agency and suffering, offers a chance to confront age-old fears of bodily destruction and an unstable world of random events. The static camera shot of a nuclear power plant offers an overlay of fears of the unknown, including the fear that one’s own government may or may not tell the truth.
Amartya Sen, the economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, has argued that democracy not only has universal value, it has unique “instrumental” benefits. Stable, modern democracies don’t suffer famine because they are, among other things, more transparent and their governments are more directly accountable and responsive to the people. Democracies prove themselves during moments of crisis.
“When things go fine and everything is routinely good, this instrumental role of democracy may not be particularly missed,” Sen has written. “It is when things get fouled up, for one reason or another, that the political incentives provided by democratic governance acquire great practical value.”
The images of tsunami destruction that have fascinated and horrified the world are some of the most visually compelling scenes ever captured on video or film. But the drama of modern Japan — first to suffer nuclear destruction, yet heavily dependent on nuclear energy — is more viscerally present in the strange, haunting, grainy images of a faraway nuclear plant. Even if the technology was available, this camera could never have done its work during the last extreme crisis of nuclear power, at Chernobyl, in the paranoid and authoritarian Soviet Union. It’s relentless, visually monotonous image, offering a kind of transparency into the crisis, is the best hope Japan has.