“What are your favorite memorable photos?” That’s the question I was asked by one of my friends yesterday. This is one of the images that moves me deeply (click on the photo to see a larger version). The expression of love and tenderness on the mother’s face as she bathes her 16 year old daughter. The daughter’s face and body showing the ravages of Minamata Disease. The play of light and shadow. To my eyes this is a stunning image, even if you know nothing about the story behind this photo. It is clear why many photographers consider W. Eugene Smith to be one of the best photojournalists of the 20th century.
It was the mother that suggested a photo in a traditional Japanese bathing chamber as a sensitive way of illustrating her daughter Tomoko’s mental and physical condition. Gene Smith was in Japan for three years to document Minamata Disease and bring it to the attention of the general public. This photo was taken in December 1971 and published by Life magazine in June 1972. Tomoko died in 1977.
Years of corporate and government neglect allowed the pollution to continue that was taking thousands of lives in Minamata Japan. The work of dedicated photographers like Gene Smith helped bring this travesty to an end. The story is here.