This photo has been shared online claiming to show a wedding in 1940 where everybody is wearing a gas mask because of the war, or as a photo showing a wedding on the volcanic island of Miyake-jima where people have to wear a gas mask all the time because of the sulphur dioxide gas coming from Mount Oyama.
It does not.
For starters, although the inhabitants of the island Miyake-jima do have a serious sulphur dioxide gas problem because of the volcano, there, they do NOT have to wear a gas mask all the time, they have to carry it with them all the time.
But this photo was not taken in Japan.
As an expert on daily life in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s I immediately noticed that the clothes, gas masks and outfits were not from that era but from much later.
To me it looked more like it came from Eastern Europe or Russia and it felt more like something from the 1980s.
It was very difficult to trace the origin of this picture, it had been online since about 2007 but started living its own life with the incorrect description almost instantly.
At first I found it as a CD cover by Swedish ‘grindcore’ band Nasum who used it for their album ‘Inhale/exhale‘ back in 1998.
One of the band members was kind enough to tell me a bit about how he got the image but unfortunately it had just been a newspaper clipping given to him by a friend so this lead ended here.
Another lead brought to ‘Hard Rain‘, an award winning project by photographer Mark Edwards who put together a huge collection of amazing pictures that illustrate the song ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan in an exhibit that went around the world from 2006 onwards.
I found the gas mask wedding photo among these photos and contacted Mr. Edwards.
He told me he had obtained the photo from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) collection, an image archive that is the result of several competitions UNEP held in the 1990s with the title “Focus on Your World”.
I found the photo here with the original description;
“Russian couple protest against pollution by wearing chemical masks during wedding ceremony.”
Photo by A. Zhdanov
Unfortunately Mr. Edwards couldn’t tell me much more about the mysterious Mr. Zhdanov , UNEP didn’t have contact details for him and they no longer maintain the collection, they didn’t even know his first name.
I kept looking and finally in the deep shadows of the already deleted internet I found a story on a Russian blog that may give us the actual background to this story;
In 1989, a series of photographs “Caution” appeared in the magazine Soviet Photo 89/10. The author of the photographs was Anatoly Zhdanov, reporter for the newspaper Sovetskaya Army in Germany.
Here is a quote from the article that preceded this series: “One way or another – we have a message addressed not to future generations, but to us, today’s inhabitants of the Earth, inhabitants of cities and villages, who have not yet fully realized, perhaps, all the drama problems facing the world today. To some, such a solution (meaning a purely photographic solution) of this topic may seem too head-on, and partly somewhat naive (to the author of these lines, I must admit. Too), but this is a message, a slogan, an appeal, that is, a form, specially designed for immediate, momentary effect. Zhdanov certainly achieved this effect, and this is the undoubted merit of his work. ”
A rough google translation of the article;
The multi-frame poster “Anatoly Zhdanov,” a reporter for the newspaper “The Soviet Army” in the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, attracts attention not only not so much by “doneness”, obvious incentiveness, alignment of each shot – something similar at one time was done by the reporter of the magazine “Soviet Union” May Nachinkin – there is something else here that makes one speak about the work of Zhdanov as an interesting, creative attempt to comprehend the problem of ecology, which has come on the agenda today on a global, global scale. Once upon a time, answering a journalist’s question about how he would define the genre peculiarity of his films, a famous American film director Stanley Kramer said something like this: “All my paintings are kind of message films.” An experienced, mature artist, Kramer was not afraid of accusations of frank publicism _ of his work (which, say for a director with a pronounced tendency to an aesthetized structure, would be tantamount to accusing him of having a bad taste) I did not accidentally recall Kramer looking at the photographs Anatoly Zhdanov – what is depicted on them would not long ago have been the subject of condemnation (if not stronger) from official critics who considered such futuristic forecasts to be “decadent motives,” “propaganda of the apocaly optical trends by means of photo art ”In short, we have before us a new, or rather, a modern view of the possible future of the planet from the point of view of assessing the current environmental situation. However, why is it only ecological? It is possible that Anatoly Zhdanov had in mind not only pollution of the air and the environment in general with all kinds of harmful emissions, it could even be that he had in mind the consequences of the uncontrolled production of nuclear weapons. I don’t know and I won’t argue – the author somehow works in the military One way or another, before us, in Kramer’s words, we see a message addressed not to future generations, but to us, today’s inhabitants of the Earth, inhabitants of cities and villages, who have not yet fully realized, perhaps, the whole dramatic nature of the problems that have arisen before the world.
To some, such a solution (meaning a purely photographic solution) of this topic may seem too head-on, and partly somewhat naive (the author of these lines must also be admitted), but this is a message, a slogan, an appeal, that is, a form specially designed for the immediate momentary effect of this effect, Zhdanov undoubtedly achieved the undoubted merit of his work. Apparently, it should be said about another, purely professional aspect of the series by Anatoly Zhdanov.
The fact is that the genre of pho mourner, chosen by him, requires the photograph to have skills and knowledge not only in the field of purely photographic but also – since this genre can be conditionally to call the genre of the cinema – a subtle understanding of things very far from photography, such as scenography,dramaturgy and directing It is actually impossible to solve the frame using several dozen extras without a clear idea of how, by what laws (and such laws undoubtedly exist) they will be located in the frame space, how to solve plastic moments and the behavior of protagonists of the crowd and etc.
I would not dare to name the works proposed by Anatoly Zhdanov, photojournalist Anatoly Zhdanov, one hundred percent success. But the significant creative potential that is embedded in them allows us to hope that the photographer didn’t leave ie attempts to continue work in this very difficult, no doubt interesting genre.
We now know that the photo is not from the 1940s and also not from Japan, it was taken either in Russia or Germany by Russian photographer Anatoly Zhdanov ( Анатолий Жданов) in the 1980s.
With the full name I soon found this heart breaking piece of footage about a fire in 2006 in Moscow where a certain Anatoly Zhdanov, Komsomolskaya Pravda Photographer says;
“Photographs, films, negatives, digital disks. All have gone, everything I spent my life filming has been destroyed by the blaze. For me, it is a life tragedy.”
If this is the same Mr. Zhdanov, and I think it is, we now know his name, that he lives in Moscow and that he suffered the worst tragedy a photographer could experience.
I also found him on Facebook and left a message, I hope I can get in touch with him so we can give him the credit he deserves for what is possibly one of the scariest wedding photos ever taken.
On top of that Mr. Edwards has also been looking for him and would love to send the photographer the ‘Hard Rain’ book.
The quest is not quite over, I want to get in touch with Mr. Zhdanov and find out the story behind the photo but at least we now know when and where it was made and by who.
Besides not crediting the artist and owner of the picture people are sharing it online without mentioning (or even realising) that the description is incorrect and that they are thus spreading fake history.
If you see the picture shared online with the incorrect description, please direct the person posting it to this article.
Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to this picture, I only share it here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.