A soul-force of courage

Eugene Smith and the power of photojournalism.

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Her limbs are shockingly thin. Her deformed body, cradled by her mother in a traditional Japanese bath, looks weightless. Her hands, bent 90 degrees at the wrist, are curled into claws. Her dark eyes, rolled upwards, stare at the photographer. Her shock of black hair sticks up like porcupine quills. But it is the look on her mother’s face that is the unforgettable heart of this image. It is a look of infinite tenderness and unquenchable love.

Tomoko in Her Bath, photographed by W. Eugene Smith in 1971, is the kind of image that makes you both dissolve with pity and explode with rage. When it was published in a photo essay in Life magazine in 1972, it sparked international condemnation of industrial polluters and helped bring justice to victims of mercury poisoning in the Japanese city of Minamata.

I first saw it when I read Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen Smith’s book Minamata in the 1980s. It was this photograph that made me want to be a photojournalist and to publish photojournalism. It was part of the motivation for the founding of New Zealand Geographic.

Tomoko Kamimura (often misnamed Uemura) was born in 1956 with Minamata disease. Her mother, like tens of thousands of Japanese people living around Minamata Bay, had been unknowingly ingesting methylmercury in the fish and shellfish that were their staple diet. A chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation had been discharging mercury compounds into the bay since the beginning of the century. By the 1950s, alarming numbers of people were displaying symptoms of paralysis and brain damage, and babies were being born with grievous deformities. Tomoko Kamimura was one of those babies.

Chisso initially denied culpability, then concocted other causes to blame, then admitted “moral guilt” but refused to compensate victims and their families. Then came the Smiths. For three years, Eugene photographed the lives of Minamata families and participated in their protests against the company.

In 1973, soon after the Life photo essay was published, Chisso was convicted of negligence “from beginning to end” and ordered to pay compensation of almost a billion yen, the largest sum ever awarded by a Japanese court. It is estimated that almost 2000 people perished from the poisoning of Minamata Bay, including Tomoko Kamimura, who died in 1977, aged 21.

Smith himself died a year later. He had been viciously beaten up by Chisso employees in 1972, and nearly lost his eyesight. For months, he could barely lift a camera, but kept working anyway by tripping a shutter release with his tongue. He never fully recovered.

“The morality that pollution is criminal only after legal conviction is the morality that causes pollution,” Smith once observed. And so it remains. In 2017, a study found that 96 per cent of women of childbearing age in three of our close island neighbours—Tuvalu, the Cook Islands and Kiribati—had mercury levels in their tissues up to three times higher than the tolerable daily limit.

Smith, born in Wichita, Kansas, 100 years ago this December, is sometimes called the father of photojournalism, a type of documentary reporting where the photographs create their own compelling narrative, independent of and dominant to any accompanying text.

Smith was a purist and a perfectionist, driven by a restless social conscience. “Anger and sorrow fire the universe of my being,” he wrote.

These emotions are central to the pictures he shot at Minamata. He refused to be silent in the face of corporate and state injustice bearing down on powerless people.

“By accident of birth, by accident of place—whoever, whatever, wherever—I am of their family,” Smith wrote. “I can comment for them, if I believe in their cause, with a voice they do not possess.”

Smith called what he did with a camera “snaring truth in a web of light”. Part of his legacy is an annual grant for photojournalists who work with the same intensity and artistry he did in documenting the human condition. The 2013 grantee was New Zealander Robin Hammond, whose harrowing images of mental health in Africa recall Smith’s own reportage of Albert Schweitzer’s work with leprosy sufferers in Gabon.

But aside from a handful of people like Hammond, it is almost impossible to make a tolerable living from photojournalism today. Even the legendary agency Magnum struggles to place its photographers’ stories with magazines (the ones that still exist, that is—Life itself was axed in 2000) and other media.

Who can afford to spend years in a community, as the Smiths did, in order to win people’s trust to document their lives? Grants to fund such photojournalism are few. There are several fellowships and residencies in New Zealand for writers, but none specifically for photojournalists.

Is that a problem? The world is hardly lacking in images. We are awash in a visual river. Perhaps that very pictorial saturation diminishes the ability of a body of powerful photographs, like those of Minamata, to penetrate the psyche: to disturb, to evoke compassion, even to transform society.

Smith said he hoped people might see in the faces of Minamata “a soul-force of courage, a force that might save our children from the plunders that began with the first industrial revolution”.

That soul-force was never more needed than it is today, as the global industrial machine grinds down the planet and flays the climate. The documentary photographer’s role in bearing witness to injustice remains. Yet in New Zealand such visual storytelling has dwindled almost to nonexistence.

“Photography is a small voice,” wrote Smith. “I believe in it.”

We need more believers.

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