A Photographer's Legacy Tarnished

He took credit for others' famous work the last 13 years of his life. Why did Joe O'Donnell do it?




(EDITOR'S NOTE: After the news broke following his death that photographer Joe O'Donnell may have been taking credit for several famous news photographs that he didn't shoot, journalists started looking into his past and examining O'Donnell's images and history. Several published stories got specific details about individual images correct, but we felt there was a larger story to tell. Journalist Heather Graulich and research assistant Laurie Graulich began working on O'Donnell's story weeks ago and when it was finished, we decided to publish on the Web site instead of in the magazine, partly because of its length but also due to the timeliness of their findings in light of other published stories.)




By Heather Graulich

- By now, every photojournalist in the country with a computer and a pulse has heard of Joe O’Donnell.

Heard of him, yes. Heard that when the retired photographer died in Nashville on August 9 at age 85, obituaries began appearing worldwide crediting him with taking one of history’s most iconic images, that of a tiny John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket.


There was just one problem: the picture that ran with the obits wasn’t by O’Donnell. It was famously that of retired United Press International photographer Stan Stearns.


And that’s when everything exploded.


A tenacious band of former UPI shooters known as the Downhold group went on the offensive, examining Web galleries and archives of photos that O’Donnell claimed to have shot and finding at least five other historical images he clearly did not.


From there, the scandal mushroomed online, with photographers of all stripes weighing in with theories and questions. The New York Times, relying on a press release and photos from a Nashville gallery that represented O’Donnell, published the obituary on August 14 with two erroneous photos. It ran a correction on September 5 and promised it was “researching other claims made by Mr. O’Donnell in the obituary.” (A follow-up article in the Times appeared September 15.)


Yes, everyone has now heard of Joe O’Donnell. But his death, the cruel illnesses that preceded it, and the shadowiness of time – even haphazard photo-crediting practices at the height of his career – muddy the waters of an already complicated story.


“It’s too late for me to figure this out,” says O’Donnell’s Japanese-born widow, Kimiko Sakai, also a photographer. “If he were alive he could explain to them.”


Already Had His Own.


The sad irony is that by the end of his life Joe O’Donnell didn’t need to claim anyone else’s work. He had already sealed his legacy with remarkable photos he actually took. And he had enjoyed a rich and interesting career.


For more than 20 years, he worked for the United States Information Agency, photographing U.S. presidents, world leaders, and historical events for government publicity purposes. He collected fascinating stories and souvenirs for his children.


But the photography of which he was most proud, the work that would deeply affect his view of the world and become his true legacy, occurred before his USIA job.

As a young Marine photographer, he took astonishing pictures of the destruction in Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bombs at the end of World War II. For seven months he shot with two cameras, he later recalled, turning half over to the government and keeping the rest for himself.







He snuck 300 negatives out of Japan in a box marked “photography paper: do not expose to light” so they wouldn’t be confiscated by the military, he recalled in a memoir published by American Heritage magazine. (His widow, Sakai, holds the negatives of these pictures, and his son, Tyge O’Donnell, has contact sheets.)


Yet the images from those months in Japan were so gut-wrenching that when O’Donnell returned home, he stuffed the negs in a trunk and tried to forget about them.


Forty years later when the devoutly religious O’Donnell was attending a Catholic retreat in Kentucky, he saw a nun’s sculpture depicting the suffering from the atomic bombs. That sculpture is what moved him to drag out the photos and begin publicly condemning nuclear weapons, he said in later interviews.


The result was a book: Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine’s Photographs from Ground Zero (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005). It brought images to light many Americans had never before seen.

“The people I met, the suffering I witnessed, and the scenes of incredible devastation taken by my camera caused me to question every belief I had previously held about my so-called enemies,” O’Donnell wrote in the preface to his book. “I left Japan with the nightmare images etched on my negatives and in my heart.”


In 1994, when the Smithsonian Institution wanted to create an exhibit coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the atomic end of World War II, it planned to use some of O’Donnell’s images in an exhibit near the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.


But veterans’ groups launched a massive protest, saying the photos and other elements of the exhibit lent too much sympathy to Japan without focusing enough on its war aggression. The Smithsonian backed down, canceling the exhibit. O’Donnell’s work never appeared in the museum.


The photographer never got over the incident, recalls his wife.


“He went to the Smithsonian and kicked the Enola Gay,” Sakai says. “Twice.”


O’Donnell, she says, didn’t care what other people thought of his actions, if he believed he was doing the right thing.


But at about the same time as the Enola Gay controversy, with his place in history secured by his war photos, Joe O’Donnell took credit for another photo that wasn’t his – 13 years before the current debacle and a half a world away.




First Known Problem.


On September 9, 1994, the Mainichi Daily News, Japan’s oldest newspaper, published an article about a correction that had run in The Asahi Shimbun, a competitor:


“The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said Friday it erroneously credited a photograph of Hiroshima shortly after its atomic bombing as a newly found aerial shot taken by a U.S. war photographer. Asahi officials said the national daily will publish a correction and apology in its Saturday morning editions. …


“The report in the July 31 morning editions … said the photo was taken by Joe O'Donnell of Tennessee around September 1945, and that he discovered it nearly 50 years later at the U.S. National Archives.