The ghosts of those killed 70 years ago by the first atomic bomb speak through their garments

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Michel Aguilera used calotype photography to immortalize the clothes worn by civilians who died during the bombing of Hiroshima

Michel Aguilera used calotype photography to immortalize the clothes worn by civilians who died during the bombing of Hiroshima

“It’s as if the clothes say, ‘See the radiation in my body,’” Michel Aguilera says about the subjects of his most recent photographic project. He spent a month at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum photographing the ragged, stained remnants of what Hiroshima’s sons, daughters, mothers and fathers wore when they perished from the atomic bomb 70 years ago this month.

I met the French photographer last week in Hiroshima as he hung his work for a gallery exhibit to coincide with the citywide commemoration of the bombing.

Aguilera points to an image of a dress with red bleeding up from the hem. He recounts that the dress is red, but when he photographed it using a unique process called calotype, the radiated area lost its vibrant color.

“Calotypes are all about light,” explains Santa Monica art collector Jay McDonald, who recently turned over his extensive collection of rare calotype negatives to The J. Paul Getty Museum. The oldest form of photography, developed in 1840, calotypes were made by using a large, wooden box camera to develop sepia-toned negatives.

“They’re about how light hits objects and how objects reflect light. Calotypes are more concerned with [the object’s] shape [than with the object itself]. There’s an abstraction. [They’re] more involved with the tonality, [so] the coloring is totally different,” McDonald elaborates.

“It’s a very labor-intense process,” continues McDonald. “It’s a labor of love. It’s not like you can take a burst and pick your favorite. You have to think about every picture. It changes the way people look at their work.”

Aguilera shot his calotypes in color, giving these haunting images the patina of a painting. Each photo took him half a day to shoot with the large, boxy device.

“[The] slow pace … inspires a certain respect and reverence,” Aguilera writes in his exhibit’s accompanying book, “Vêtements de Hiroshima.”

Before undertaking this project, Aguilera had been photographing clothes for a broader series that included garments discarded by gypsies. When the Parisian traveled to Hiroshima in 2005 and saw the artifacts in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, he was struck.

“I had to photograph them,” he said, his eyes darkening.

The 30 images of the disembodied shrouds floating on white backgrounds create a surprising universality. Although deeply personal and intimate, each pair of pants, each work uniform, each school dress could be anyone’s — my dad’s, my aunt’s, my sister’s, or mine — giving the historical garments a contemporary immediacy.

Each image is accompanied by a description of the clothing’s owner that was researched by the Hiroshima museum.
For example:

“School uniform jacket, exposed at 18 feet from the hypocenter — “Tatsuya, a 14-year-old schoolboy, was standing in the playground when the bomb exploded. His whole body was burnt; he helplessly tried to escape by the wrecked road, but collapsed halfway [home]…”

Aguilera’s artistry is evident not only in his technical photography skills, but also in the way he displays each article, unveiling an unexpected meaning. The rips in a pair of dark pants reveal an outlined crucifix in the inseam, the blood stains on a school uniform saturate a student’s name tag which, like all children’s uniforms, listed his blood type along with the name of his school.

“It’s like there’s a message in the clothes,” Aguilera says, his gaze focused on his image of the ripped pants.

As one who has told and retold war victims’ stories, I recognized his fatigue in living with others’ pain and his conflicting inability to let that pain go.

I was most struck by the image of a super-saturated purple dress. The accompanying narrative described a 23-year-old woman, Setsuko, who crawled her way out of her destroyed office building and made her way to her uncle’s home. Three days later, her mother finally found her. But Setsuko’s body was so hot, her mother was unable to hold her as she died 12 days after the blast.  Setsuko had made the dress she wore to work that day.

Aguilera “posed” the dress with its skirt swinging.

“I like to imagine [that] her last moments were dancing,” Aguilera says, smiling wistfully and almost believing himself.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the 70th commemorations of the atomic bombings and blogged about the experience at She can be reached at