Interview

(excerpt)



« I got obsessed with the atomic bomb when I realized that the
bomb itself is the only physical token that connects the laboratories and the devastated cities in Japan. »



Ayaka Kuroda: It's great having you, Max. You've been working a bit more than five years on this body of work, and I was wondering what initially kicked off your interest in that topic.

Max Ernst Stockburger: Thanks for having me, Aya. Well, I had been living in Hiroshima back in 2014 and 2015, and of course, I was aware of its history. The city's atmosphere is so unique and special you can almost sense what happened there in 1945, although today there is not much left to see apart from the Atomic Bomb Dome. One of my favorite places was the Heiwa Koen (Peace Memorial Park). The park is right next to the hypocenter of the bomb and after the explosion, they decided to not rebuild it but to turn it into a memorial. Quite often, I got up very early and walked around the park. During the sunrise, there is almost no one there, and everything feels even more surreal. I always tried to imagine what it must have been like on the day the bomb exploded. I also had another favorite place, which was an old steel tower on a hill far above the city. You could see the whole area, and it always made me speechless to think about that everything I saw from up there was destroyed or at least damaged by the bomb.



Strangely, I never really thought about working on the atomic bomb photographically while I was living in Hiroshima. Somehow it always felt too close and too intimate to do so. That changed as soon as I returned back home to Germany. This made me wonder how much the distance contributed to my ability to deal with that subject, which then got me interested in the other side of the atomic bomb. How did the physical distance affect the scientists and military personnel regarding the decision to create and drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I think this is really where the project started. I got into the other side of history and what I found instantly intrigued me.

A: Yeah, I kind of know what you're talking about. In Japan, almost every school kid visits Hiroshima or Nagasaki. For me, it was a very dark experience and I remember thinking about it for quite a while. But you're right I never really thought about the politicians and scientists behind that. I think in Japan we've just accepted it as a necessary evil to end the war.

M: I think this view is not only unique to Japan. It's the truth we all came to accept for various reasons. There are a lot of historians out there who criticize this narrative, but for my body of work, the question of whether it was necessary or justified is not really important. I'm fascinated by the momentum created by everything surrounding the Manhattan Project. In a way, the use of the atomic bomb is an inherent part of its development. Of course, that's not a revelation but the meticulousness of documenting the development and its aftermath reveals something else. I think these photographs give us a deep insight into the structures of how our modern, highly technologized world. Although they are more than 75 years old they have a currentness that is striking to me.

There were so many different branches, departments, divisions, subdivisions, you name it, involved in creating the atomic bomb. Some of them were thousands of kilometers apart from each other. Each of them interlocked with the other, without ever knowing that they existed in the first place. In total, about 120,000 people worked on creating the atomic bomb and everything was neatly photographed and documented by the U.S. military. I have a series of 200 photographs documenting the installation of pipes in a single building at the Hanford site in Washington. In a sense, this was a miniature pre-release of our hyperspecialized and globalized world.
A: So your fascination originates in the mere number of photographs related to the development and use of the atomic bomb?

M: Oh no, that's something I only realized a lot later, especially when I was visiting all major Manhattan Project archives across the U.S.. One simply can't imagine how many photographs are out there. But maybe we got some time to talk about that later because I learned a lot about archives and how we use them to deal with history.

Initially, I got obsessed with the atomic bomb when I realized that the bomb itself is the only physical token that connects the laboratories and the devastated cities in Japan. None of the politicians, scientists or soldiers had ever been to both places, and obviously, neither have the victims. However, there seems to be a metaphysical or symbolic connection between these places established by the atomic bomb. For example, the heat of the explosion of the test bomb in the desert of New Mexico melted the sandy grounds into some mineral-like residue called Trinitite, whereas the heat in Hiroshima melted glass, tiles, and bottle caps to mineral-like lumps. On the one side, you have technology and science creating something out of nothing on the other side it's destroying its very own origins, culture, and civilization. Another example is how much the devastated landscape of Hiroshima resembles the testing grounds in New Mexico.

The testing grounds in New Meixco
Hiroshima after the bomb

A: So basically you're linking images through space and time?

M: Yeah, with these kinds of juxtapositions it's almost like stretching the cause-and-effect chain. These events are all directly or indirectly related to each other. But each narrative tends to mask one or the other. My aim was to create a physical space that brings together what is often being presented as two single, almost independent events.
Visit any of the large museums in Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, or Hanford. They solely focus on the infrastructural and scientific achievements related to the atomic bomb. You might find a photo or two about the actual bombing but the majority is about something else. The other way round in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

I think the horror really lies in the connection of the everydayness of the Manhattan Project and the devastation caused by it in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This always makes me think about the impacts my daily actions have on the rest of the world. Climate change is only the most obvious aspect of that.

I like to think of these juxtapositions as hyperlinks. Traditional archives have a very hard time working with hyperlinks. This is very much related to the fact that even today the majority of all information is stored physically in binders and folders. What I'm doing in my work is bringing the digital to the analog world. Usually, we do it the other way round. My juxtapositions are not restricted by period, place, or subject. They're much more like Wikipedia. You start with one topic but you end up somewhere completely different but still everything is connected.

A: Okay, but why don't you simply put all your images up on the internet then?

M: Haha, that's a good question. In a way, you're right. I'm a digital native and I think this work very much represents the way we digital natives retrieve and organize our knowledge and I'm sure this body of work wouldn't exist without knowing and having used the internet. But there are two reasons why I think it's still fundamentally different. First, the internet is very much the definition of a non-place. So everything happens everywhere. For me, it was really important to bring everything into one specific physical place. Technology in the form of the internet would just mask causality the same way the bomb did it. I don't want people to be able to escape it or close their eyes from the things they don't want to see. The other reason is that although I'm using hyperlinks, the way I'm organizing and evaluating my "content" is very much the opposite of how Google and other search engines operate. On the internet, content becomes more valuable the more it's being linked to. Google knows something has value not because they understand the meaning of it but because they compute its relevancy by the number of backlinks it receives. This is great to computationally organize and evaluate information but it also means popular things will become even more popular as a lot of people will link to them only because they already know them.



So for example, if I'm looking for the famous photo of the U.S. soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima it's enough to I type in "putting up flag" and Google will return the exact image I was looking for. I don't have to know anything about the context the photo was created in and still I'm able to find it. That's something very unique to the internet. Back in the analog world, you have to know the context before you can find the actual content. To find this image in the National Archive you need a lot of information. Military Branch, Theatre of War, Country, Year, and so on.
This gets even more complicated when you're looking for more generic photos like U.S. soldiers putting up flags. In the archive, you have to check folder by folder, photo by photo. In Google, you just type in "U.S. soldier putting up flag" and you get millions of hits.


These are two fundamentally different ways of organizing knowledge and each has its benefits. Long story short, I wanted to create a system that is capable of utilizing both modes of organization and at the same time make sure that the context is always given. It's always me who decides what combination is being displayed and I want people to know that I'm the author of it. This simply wouldn't work on the internet at least not the way it's being organized at the moment.


end of the excerpt