Drawing upon the history of Pacific War and Japanese American internment in the US, Tsubota explores how memory is intimately connected to images.
We know relatively little about Necessary Evil, one of the seven aircraft deployed in the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Being the only camera plane in the squadron, its primary objective was to observe and record, then produce a scientific, strategic, and visually consistent picture of the attack—which repeated three days later in Nagasaki. As an instrument of administering and archiving war, the camera plane held particular significance in the wanning years of World War II, when aerial bombings were increasingly central to military strategy. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, for instance, employed over a thousand people to assess the efficacy of Allied aerial attacks, first in Europe and then in the Pacific. Published a year after the atomic bombings, the USSBS collated some 330 individual reports, including nearly 10,000 images in the Japan segment alone.
“I’m interested in the idea that volume actually incites a type of withdrawal,” says photographer Allie Tsubota, whose ongoing project, The Magician’s Bombardier, contends with the limits and possibilities of photographic archives to confront the aftermath of nuclear warfare, both in the Pacific Theatre and the US. “Images of war have generalized meanings that many spectators are already primed to project on the photographs,” she says. Interpolating visual material from collections, such as the USSBS, with a series of essays and original photographs of carceral ruins from Japanese American internment in the US, Tsubota explores how historical memory is constituted, framed, and often effaced in service of archival designs. The acts of making images and making war are intimately connected; the title of her project references this connection, suggesting “that acts of war (like acts of photography) are invested in a type of fatal and ghostly magic.”
Exhuming images from a military archive is not without its complications, and Tsubota is aware of the dangers of extracting archival materials in a way that might reproduce the state’s indexical relationship to the image. In her own re-aggregation of original and archived images, she suggests more subtle and expansive connections, paying close attention to where the camera is located across this trans-Pacific history. A recent image of shattered porcelain strewn across the Tule Lake Segregation Center—one of ten internment camps constructed by the US to forcibly detain Japanese Americans in the 1940s—mirrors a US Air Force photograph of bomb ruins in Otake, Hiroshima; another archival image from an unidentified bunker made by the USSBS Photo Intelligence Division in Japan bears a striking resemblance to images of abandoned American theatres made by photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto in the 1970s.
Against the disciplinarian logic of the military survey—and the function of tools such as Necessary Evil—Tsubota is committed to the imaginative and civil political potential of archives. “History keeps haunting us,” she says, “and any attempt to foreclose on the haunting is to foreclose on the history itself, an attempt to contain it as a catastrophe of the past.”
Allie Tsubota is a runner-up for the 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize, an annual international competition to discover, exhibit, and publish new talents in photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.Varun Nayar is the assistant editor of Aperture magazine.