The Minamata Pietà


Minamata is a small Japanese fishing town living in the shadow of the chemical factory of the Chisso Corporation. When the factory began dumping large amounts of mercury in the bay in 1956 thousands of people began to develop symptoms of mercury poisoning. Almost all the towns cats went insane, throwing themselves into the ocean. Birds fell out of the sky. Panic gripped the city. In time, thousands of people would die from the poisoning.


An aide mops the brow of Chisso’s president Shimada, after he performed the Japanese ritual of shame and apology: touching his forehead to the ground, at the close of a grueling day in court.

Eugene Smith’s portrait of Minamata is an impassioned tale of environmental destruction, corporate neglect, and social responsibility. Together with his half-Japanese wife Aileen, he chronicled the fight against the industrial state, the direct action protests, the court cases, the stories of the afflicted families. Smith’s achievement is remarkable as he was not a detached observer but an active participant in the story, his role both heroic and tragic. Measured by its social impact, his photobook, Minamata, is one of the most important pictorial documents in history.

William Eugene Smith took this photo, and together with the help of his wife and Ishikawa Takeshi, a local photographer, many other photos were taken of the effects of long term environmental industrial mercury poisoning on the local population.

Here, on the Japanese Island of Kyushu, we see an image of an outwardly healthy mother bathing her fetal-poisoned 16 year old daughter, Tomoko Uemura, grotesquely deformed, physically crippled and blind since birth due to environmental industrial mercury poisoning in the local Minamata, Japan, water supply.

This may well be the first environmental pollution photojournalism. Note also the invariable comparison to Michelangelo Buonarroti ‘s Pietà.

William Eugene Smith, who was severely beaten by goons hired by the offending chemical company, also received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for “photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.”



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