A pawnshop owner's viral TikTok video, in which he said he received an album of over 30 previously unseen photos of the Nanjing Massacre, has sparked backlash over the ethics of posting graphic historical materials online without expert verifying that they're real.
Evan Kail, the pawnshop owner and TikTok creator who posted about the photos last week, said a client brought him the album to sell. A relative of the client was a soldier stationed in Southeast Asia in the late 1930s and apparently documented his time there, Kail said.
"Somehow that guy who took those photos was present for the Rape of Nanking, and he took about 30 photographs that are unknown to history that are worse than anything I've ever seen on the internet," Kail said in the video, which has 25 million views.
Kail has been widely criticized for posting images from the album without having authenticated them first.
Some online also accused him of using the photo album, as well as the tragedy of the massacre, to gain social media followers.
Kail said he didn't expect his video and subsequent tweets to go viral.
"I thought it was of extreme historical significance no matter what was in it," Kail said in a statement to NBC News. "And so what you saw is what I made, and I was not expecting it to go global so fast. That just completely ran away from me."
The client’s album, he said, "screwed" him up. “And finally when I made that video it was just a lot of emotion I was digesting, and speaking without thinking," he said.
Kail told NBC News that the photos turned out to be from Shanghai, not Nanjing. He said he couldn’t elaborate further on the advice of his lawyer.
Still, as of Wednesday, his social media posts remained live, and people continued to question them.
'The most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in my career'
The Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanjing, was the mass killing of Chinese civilians and soldiers by the Japanese Imperial Army from December 1937 to January 1938, after Japan seized Nanjing, then the capital of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The city's name was previously romanized as Nanking.
During the six-week massacre, the Japanese Imperial Army executed residents, looted and burned buildings and raped tens of thousands of women. The death toll is estimated to be 40,000 to 300,000; the mass graves and the destruction of the city have made a precise count "impossible," according to the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, which recorded and preserved testimonies from survivors in a digital archive.
Kail said online that the gruesome photos in the album depict bodies piled on the streets, executions and graphic torture. In his original video, he said that he was posting about the album to alert the research community and that he couldn't post many of the photos on TikTok because they violated its community guidelines.
"This is the most disturbing thing I've ever seen in my career, and I desperately need your guys' help," Kail said in the video.
Some commenters urged Kail to document the photos and post them online to spread awareness of the brutality of the event, pointing out that some people have disputed the estimated death toll or deny that the massacre happened at all to absolve Japan.
In 2012, a Japanese mayor sparked outrage when he said the "so-called Nanjing Massacre is unlikely to have taken place." In 2017, Japanese hotel mogul Toshio Motoya received backlash for distributing a revisionist book throughout his chain of 400 hotels. The book, a collection of essays he wrote for the hotel newsletter, claimed that evidence of the Nanjing Massacre was "fabricated by the Chinese side and did not actually happen."
"Take pictures, post them online," a TikTok user commented on Kail's video. "Make them widely spread. If it needs to be preserved, the internet will do the best job."
Others cautioned against doing so and urged Kail to contact a historian or a museum to verify the photos' authenticity first.
We shouldn't have to see these graphic images and these horrendous, brutal acts of violence to believe that they happened."
tiktok creator gracevz
In a stitched video responding to Kail, TikTok creator lisatalk_, who makes content about Chinese internet culture, said that after the video was translated and spread on Chinese social media, "most Chinese people's concern is about whether the photos are real or not."
TikTok creator gracevz also stitched Kail's video, criticizing some viewers as being insensitive for pushing Kail to post the photos online. They reminded viewers that "there's still a lot of generation trauma that comes from these massacres," adding that their family is from Nanjing and is still deeply affected by the massacre.
"I just want people to recognize that when they're saying things like 'Just let the internet do its thing, these have to be seen,' ... we shouldn't have to see these graphic images and these horrendous, brutal acts of violence to believe that they happened," gracevz said.
Twitter photos fuel further skepticism
Kail ended up posting photos of some of the images Thursday on Twitter.
Some users were immediately skeptical of the photos' authenticity.
Journalist and programmer Dan Ngyuen replied that some of the photos in Kail's TikTok video match photos on Google Image search.
In a Twitter thread responding to the discourse surrounding Kail's TikTok video and tweets, she said the album genuinely did appear to be from the 1930s. But she suggested that the included photos were printed and widely distributed, which the soldier was likely to have bought and added to the album.
Teeuwisse said photo albums weren't uncommon souvenirs for soldiers from that time. She compared the album in Kail's video to a Dutch photo album that included photos of the bombing of Rotterdam during World War II.
"Just after the bombing people were selling little sets of these photos everywhere, as a reminder, as news, to show people what happened, etc," she wrote in the thread.
The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, a museum in Nanjing, told the Global Times that it contacted Kail but didn't get a response.
A staff member said that the museum has "strict procedures for the collection of cultural relics" and that "the most important thing is to contact the man in the video to verify the information."
The museum didn't immediately respond to request for comment.
Kail is now trying to get the album in the 'hands of the right people'
It’s unclear whether Kail has connected with any historical institutions or academics to verify that the photos are original.
Responding to “the haters” Sunday, Kail said he had “several prestigious people” look at a “small sample” of the photos.
"Have you seen the book in its entirety? Then how could you possibly know whether or not it's real? It's pretty messed up I am being attacked for educating millions of people about a genocide," Kail said in another tweet Sunday.
On Tuesday, Kail declined to provide details about his next steps, but he said he's brokering a deal for the album.
"So now I'm trying to get it in the hands of the right people and get it authenticated," Kail continued in his statement. "And just handling this as sensitively and delicately as I can. It's a very complicated geopolitical situation."