Minamata by W. Eugene Smith: photos and facts

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Takako Isayama, victim of the Minamata disease, with her mother. Minamata

Takako Isayama, a 12-year-old victim of the Minamata disease, with her mother. Minamata. Japan. 1972

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.

Also, take a look at the story of a Country doctor by W.Eugene Smith, and The brightest photos by W. Eugene Smith

Fishing. Minamata Bay, Japan. 1972

Fishing. Minamata Bay, Japan. 1972

  1. 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 factory Minamata Smith

The entrance to a section of the Chisso Chemical Plant. Minamata, Japan. 1972

  1. 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. 
Mrs Hayashida with her dying husband. They both suffer from mercury poisoning.

Mrs. Hayashida with her dying husband. They both suffer from mercury poisoning.

  1. 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.
Victims of mercury disease Smith Minamata

Patients and relatives carry photographs of the ‘verified’ dead on the last day of the Minamata Trial (victims of the disease against the Chisso Plant). Minamata Bay, Japan. 1972

  1. 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. 
Fishermen. Minamata Bay, Japan. 1972

Fishermen. Minamata Bay, Japan. 1972

  1. 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. 
Iwazo Funaba's crippled hands. She is a victim of the Minamata disease.

Iwazo Funaba’s hands affected by Minamata disease.

  1. 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. 
Shinobu Sakamoto at her junior high school class sports day.

Shinobu Sakamoto at her junior high school class sports day.

  1. 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. 
Shinobu Sakamoto talking with a friend. Photo taken by Aileen M. Smith. 1972

Shinobu Sakamoto is talking with a friend. Aileen M. Smith took the photo. 1972

  1. 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.
Shinobu Sakamoto Minamata

Shinobu Sakamoto preparing a meal to be shared by victims and their supporters.

  1. 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. 
victim of Minamata disease Smith

Isamu NAGAI, a victim of the disease, at the Rehabilitation Center for Minamata patients.

  1. 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.
Takako Isayama, W.Eugene Smith

Takako Isayama, a 12-year-old fetal (congenital) Minamata disease victim with her mother.

Tomoko with her family, supporters, Gene, and Asahi Camera editor, taken at Tomoko’s home in Minamata on her sixteenth birthday. Photo by Aileen M. Smith. June 13, 1972.

Tomoko, with her family, supporters, W.Eugene Smith, and Asahi Camera editor, taken at Tomoko’s home in Minamata on her sixteenth birthday. Photo by Aileen M. Smith. June 13, 1972.

Teenager Shinobu Sakamoto

Teenager Shinobu Sakamoto, a congenital Minamata disease patient, out on the town to shop for a present.

Minamata Bay

Minamata Bay. A victim of the disease. 1971.

Mercury poisoning. Industrial waste from the Chisso Chemical Plant being dumped into Minimata Bay

Mercury poisoning. Industrial waste from the Chisso Chemical Plant flowing into Minimata Bay

representative of the Chisso

Patients holding down a representative of the Chisso Chemical Plant, demanding that he look at them.

Chisso chairman

Chisso president Kenichi Shimada during marathon negotiations with Minamata disease victims at Chisso Tokyo headquarters.

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.

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