Photographing the Blitz: Coventry, FROM ABOVE

Photographer Paule Saviano began FROM ABOVE in September 2008 when he photographed atomic bomb survivors – known as Hibakusha – in Nagasaki, Japan.  After this initial meeting, he then photographed survivors of Hiroshima and also those who had experienced the firebombing of Tokyo on 10th March 1945.  From Japan, the project spread to Dresden, German where survivors of the 13th February 1945 firebombing, immortalised in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse 5, told of their experiences and were photographed.

Paule explains ‘From Above is covering war from the human side, not promoting sensationalism or politics.  I approached the portraits as photographing the human spirit.  In the history books there isn’t a human face…and not much is spoken about the civilian side of war, especially regarding civilians after the bombings.’

I became involved with the project when Paule, a good friend of mine, asked me to proof read and edit the English texts for a book comprising photographs and reminiscences from Japan and Germany.  Correspondence of textual alterations from England to Tokyo via New York (where Paule is based) was nightmarish, but the book emerged as an elegant, cloth-bound doorstop.

Following this, we began arrangements to bring the project to Coventry which is twinned with Dresden due to its own devastating firebombing in November 1940.  The aerial obliteration of Coventry was studiously mimicked for the Dresden bombardment, yet the cities emerged united in a programme of reconciliation, much of which is conducted through Coventry cathedral.

Meetings with survivors occurred at the end of September 2011, just before I joined Bristol as a postgraduate student.  Paule, his partner Caro from Dresden and I travelled to Coventry to meet seven very warm individuals.

Essentially, FROM ABOVE is a photography project, with the pictures describing more than what the verbal is capable of.  However, before being photographed each survivor spoke of their experiences.  Whilst stories from Japan and Germany had become in some ways very familiar, differences in culture, geography and language had preserved a protective wadding of separation.  Hearing English people of my grandparent’s generation speak gave the stories a far rawer edge, despite the passage of 70 years ballooning and distorting.  Disparities between our generation and the previous two appear heightened.  Is this characteristic specific to the last 100 years or has it always been so? In history, 10-50 years or more will get clumped together when attempting to define the zeitgeist forming the background to, say, a painting.  Yet, the world of air raids, conscription and rationing – and even the shiny new world of the late 1950s – feels just as foreign as Hiroshima.

Unlike the portraits previously taken, the photos from Coventry incorporate more of the city landscape.  The resolute cathedral ruins; the indomitable new one and the post-war modernist architecture we have now all learnt to despise all contribute narratives of rebuilding, recovery and the present alongside the confusing cloud of the past.

Whilst the photos are being developed, selected and printed, the project continues to expand with Paule meeting other Hibakusha now living in North America.  Hopefully an exhibition of the photographs, perhaps combined with those from Dresden, will become possible.  However, what is primarily important is to capture something of and learn from this generation before the distance between us becomes all too tangible.

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