Photo With a Backstory

Photo by W. Eugene Smith
photo by W. Eugene Smith

When I saw this photo yesterday at an exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum, I knew it was special, but I was unaware of its history until I did some research at home. The late photo journalist W. Eugene Smith took this posed picture in 1971 to increase awareness of Minimata Disease, a form of mercury poisoning. The subject is a young Japanese girl, the deformed Tomoko Eurema , who is being bathed by her loving mother. Tomoko suffered from Minamata disease and died six years after this photo was taken.

Minamata is a village on the Japanese island of Kyushu. People began dying from mercury poisoning in 1956 after a chemical company began dumping its waste water into Minamata Bay. Smith wanted to raise awareness of this terrible disease and its cause. Tomoko’s mother suggested a photo be taken of her washing her lifeless daughter. I didn’t need to know more when I saw this photo–the mother’s eyes say it all.

While the photo appeared in Life Magazine in 1972 and awareness was raised, there was significant controversy to follow. Locals who depended on the chemical plant for a livelihood, were angry at the family–Smith himself, was physically beaten by locals. Rumors spread about the motive for the photo. After Smith died the rights to the photo were given to Tomoko’s family.

Regardless of the backstory, the image is powerful and, to me, remains unaffected by how and why it was taken. The masterful use of shadows to accentuate the eyes makes this photo one I won’t forget.

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