There is something special about almost every picture of W.Eugene Smith, but when speaking of a historical impact, his Minamata series takes an unquestionable lead.
Even the Pittsburgh photo essay lacks the same motivation that filled Gene during his Minamata trip.
Minamata started as a photo report with a strong social motivation behind a usual three-month appointment for Smith, who used to have a lot of those during his long camera life. But it ended up with a subsequent book Minamata: A Warning to the World, and massive worldwide success. Let’s take a look at the best pictures and facts, which became an accurate historical record.
- W.Eugene Smith was 51 when he decided to capture the Minamata case. He came to the idea of changing the world with his photojournalism and selected the case of mercury pollution in Minamata as a subject to cover.
- Chisso Corporation was a chemical factory in the Japanese city of Minamata, which stood behind the environmental pollution. Their production cycle involved the release of the methylmercury with wastewater into Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. These hazardous elements interacted with the whole local marine ecosystem. While Japanese food culture is inextricably linked to the seafood, this water pollution leads to thousands of cases of mercury poisoning among locals. Neither Chisso Corporation nor the local or central Japanese government cared about pollution in the Minamata area.
- The Japanese government officially recognized the Minamata problem in 1968. Thousands of people had already died due to mercury pollution in the bay area, and there were no precedents of this kind in Japanese history.
- W.Eugene Smith arrived in Minamata in 1971, and he had a lot of experience in covering human tragedies and life hurdles. He photo reported such historical bloody invasions as Tarawa, Guam, and Iwo Jima as LIFE’s WWII correspondent.
- W.Eugene Smith published Minamata book together with Aileen Mioko Smith. They married in Tokyo just before the Minamata trip. The couple planned to stay for three months but ended up staying for three years to capture all the historical events.
- Smith followed his usual photo style and stayed as close to the families who suffered the pollution coincidences as possible. Smith was first and foremost a journalist, and he made no secret of his determinedly subjective approach. He put himself—and therefore, the viewer—at the emotional center of what he was seeing.
- A genius photographer, W.Eugene Smith, lived a life of the Minamata families. His images showed not only the victims’ physical and mental pain but also their determination, humanity, and moments of joy.
- While covering the illnesses of the people of Minamata, Smith suffered his ailments, the results of his historically invaluable WWII reportages. The artillery shell severely wounded his jaw during the Battle of Okinawa. Two plane crushes also left their signs in his body health. Things got worse during a trip to the factory in Goi in 1972 when the Chisso security crew beat a photographer. Neck trauma caused temporary blindness in one eye as well as blackouts when he raised his arm.
- Minamata was a final photo essay by W.Eugene Smith, but the images have taken on a life of their own. The photographs were published in LIFE in 1972, participated in several global exhibitions overseas, and came together in the publication of the co-authored book, Minamata, in 1975.
- Barack Obama’s recalled the Minamata images in autobiography. He mentioned a photo in the LIFE magazine of a woman holding a disabled child in the bath. When Obama became president of the United States, he made several moves towards an international agreement to limit the use of mercury. One of these photos definitely deserves a place among Top 100 most influential photos in history.
What is mercury disease: High amounts of mercury affect your nervous system, leading to permanent changes. The condition is specifically dangerous to young children who are still developing. Mercury exposure can lead to developmental problems in the brain, which can also affect physical functions such as motor skills.