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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Portraits of dignity

Minori Takao

Dec. 20, 2017

An American photographer based in New York takes pictures of famous musicians, models, and dancers. But that's for his profession. He has a personal project that focuses on very different subjects -- atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When he can, photographer Paule Saviano travels to Japan to meet atomic bomb survivors. So far, he's met over a hundred hibakusha.

When he exhibits his photos, he adds short explanations of the person and their experience.

Senji Yamaguchi suffered severe radiation burns to the whole of his right side. His liver was damaged and he eventually developed leukemia.

But instead of photographing the wounds, Saviano says he wants to show the courage of the hibakusha who have stood up to speak for peace.

"I want you to feel the bond between every person, between the words and the pictures," Saviano says. "And you know, I want the pictures to be kind of a visual voice."

Saviano lives in New York, and at 43, he's built a career working for magazines and artists.

In 2007, he visited Japan for an exhibition and learned that many hibakusha were coming out to speak publicly about their experiences. He'd learned about the atomic bombings in school in the US. But he felt there were many unanswered questions about what had happened. So he started this personal project, separate from his professional career.

Saviano begins his sessions by listening. Most hibakusha cannot speak English, so they communicate through a translator.

He's meeting ninety-one-year-old Hamako Sasaki for the first time. She's visually impaired. She was a teenager when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

"I was sitting on the veranda, when suddenly an extremely bright light flashed," Sasaki says. "I thought that the sun had crashed down on us."

Sasaki can barely walk. Saviano photographed her for about thirty minutes, and then she asked him to pass on some words.

"Please tell the young people never to drop another atomic bomb, and to embrace peace. Everyone in the world must get along."

"I wanted to make her look smaller, because she was so strong when she looked small," Saviano says. "And it was a kind of way of saying you don’t have to be big to be strong. And she was actually stronger when I showed her smaller."

Taking the pictures can be a challenge. Saviano says it took him a while to find the right moment when photographing Setsuko Thurlow.

Thurlow is an atomic bomb survivor who's spent decades fighting for a ban of nuclear arms. She spoke on behalf of all hibakusha at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony this year, when ICAN -- the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons -- accepted the Prize.

Saviano has visited her whenever she speaks in public, and their friendship has grown. But he says it was difficult for him to capture Thurlow's true emotions.

"Whenever I photographed her, she used to smile at me. And she’s a very friendly charming person. But when I first met her, I was listening to her testimony, and her testimony was very, you could tell it was ripping her apart inside, and it was painful for her, and she would always pause and stop and take a deep breath."

It's been almost a decade since Saviano started his project, and the passing of time has been a painful experience for him as well.

"As years have gone by, probably half of the hibakusha I photographed have passed away," he says.

He met Akira Fukahori in 2016. Fukahori came to see Saviano's recent exhibition, and they were happy to see each other again. But 4 days later, Fukahori passed away.

Each time Saviano receives such news, he says the loss hits him hard, deep inside. But that has also made him more determined to continue.

"I’m coming back till the last person," he says. "I don’t know when that’s going to be, but for me I feel like if I don’t, I’m not fulfilling what I want."

Saviano has taken over 3,000 portraits that capture the strength and dignity of their presence. But his mission is far from over.