ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

W. Eugene Smith’s Warning to the World

By April 16, 2019 ASMP Legends

Image © W. Eugene Smith | Magnum Photos

Editor’s Note: The late W. Eugene Smith was an ASMP Professional Member. Also of interest: Apply Today for W. Eugene Smith Fund Grants!

Cross-posted from Magnum Photos

“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.” So wrote W. Eugene Smith in 1974. A master of twentieth-century photojournalism, Smith was obsessive in the pursuit of his vision to make meaningful work, and this obsession is perhaps most evident in his long term project documenting the deadly effects of industrial mercury pollution in the Japanese city of Minamata. Smith saw the work as a “warning to the world” and ultimately put his life on the line to give a voice to the victims.

For years, the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory in Minamata had released methylmercury through its industrial wastewater into Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea which bio-accumulated in the local marine life. This in turn led to thousands of cases of mercury poisoning in the local populace who ingested the toxic food caught in their fishing nets. For more than three decades, the government and Chisso Corporation did little to prevent the pollution and the company even covered up research that “pointed to [its] recklessness”, as was subsequently reported by The New York Times among others. It wasn’t until 1968 that the government finally issued a statement officially recognising Minamata disease as an illness caused by industrial pollution, and from that point the victims’ struggle for compensation began in earnest.

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