There is one photograph that should be in every general retrospective of documentary photography, but never is. The American LIFE and Magnum photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918 – 1978) took this particular image in 1972, when he was recording the effects of mercury poisoning on the local residents of the Japanese seaside town Minamata. True to his own strong classical style, Smith portrays a mother who is bathing her severely disabled daughter.
The image is so strong that it is much more than just a part of a report. It not only deals with mercury poisoning, this is motherly love of the most unconditional kind. The photograph transcends the documentary photography genre: it is a work of art. But it is also a masterpiece that cannot be exhibited or reproduced. Smith was always very close to his subjects, and especially in his work with victims suffering from Minamata disorder. This disorder was a consequence of the many years that the chemical plant Chisso dumped chemical waste into the ocean. The mercury in this waste poisoned the fish in the waters around Minamata. Residents who ate the fish developed neurological disorders and physical deformities. According to official figures, of the 14,000 affected residents, one thousand eventually died of the effects of the dumping. The Minamata case acquired a symbolic significance in those days, and all around the world people began to understand that we have to take care of the environment. The struggle in Minamata was lengthy and difficult; it lasted 25 years before the Japanese government took action. It was not an easy assignment for Smith; during his stay in Minamata, Smith was often threatened and once even beaten up by employees of Chisso.
Smith worked in Minamata for months, in close collaboration with his Japanese wife, Aileen Mioko. They built up a close relationship with the Uemuru family and even baby-sat their daughter Tomoko, suffering of Minamata disorder. The portrait he made of Tomoko and her mother is no coincidence, according to American photo editor and personal friend of the Smiths, Jim Hughes. Mother Ryoko suggested Smith to use the bath for the portrait he wanted to make: “Certainly, she gave the photographer and his young wife permission to make the photo, and also to use the image for purposes that could benefit the residents of Minamata and other comparable victims in other part of the world.” Subsequently, the image went all over the world. But after some years, the Uemuru family began to experience the drawbacks. Jealousy and suspicion led to the accusation that the family had unnecessarily tired Tomoko and made money of the photo. Father Yoshio felt badly burdened by the accusations. After a French film crew visited the family to get the story behind the photo - for an episode in the series Les 100 Photos Du Siècle - he could take no more and asked Aileen Mioko-Smith for privacy. In an ultimate gesture of their involvement with the subject and the people they met in Minamata, she assigned the copyright in the photo to the Uemuru family. Since then, new publications are no longer possible. Even museums were asked to follow the family’s wishes and respect their privacy.
W. Eugene Smith saw his career and his health deteriorate after publication of the Minamata story – the last story he completed – due to a combination of reasons and died in 1978. Aileen Mioko-Smith is still active for the benefit of victims of environmental pollution (see website www.aileenarchive.or.jp). Tomoko died in 1977, at the age of 21, from the effects of pneumonia. Now the photograph can only be found in books, on some websites and there are some vintage prints. And of course it is stored in the memory of many people, because when you have seen the photo once, you will never forget it.
More information on humanistic photography: http://smithfund.org/