By 1971, American photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978) had become a shadow of his former self, a shell-shocked recluse with a drinking problem who had retreated into the seclusion of his New York studio and home. Smith, whose father committed suicide in 1936, was alone, surrounded only by the remnants of his career as a world-renowned photojournalist.
Under the red light of the darkroom bulb Smith’s photographs hung, mementos of the best and worst of humanity. After getting his start in 1939 for Newsweek, Smith began shooting for Life the following year, compiling a compendium of work that made him one of the most influential photojournalist of the twentieth-century. A master of the photo essay, Smith, who became a member of Magnum Photos in 1955, documented war and peace, poverty and beauty in equal part.
In the 1960s, while Smith risked his life to bear witness to the destruction and salvation of humanity, halfway around the world the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory was poisoning the fishing village of Minamata, Japan. Between 1932 and 1968, the factory released wastewater contaminated with toxic methylmercury, poisoning the water and sea life consumed by locals. As of 2001, 2,265 people were afflicted with Minamata disease, a neurological disorder that causes muscle weakness, damage to hearing, vision, and speech, as well as insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The first case was reported in 1956; since then 1,784 have died as a result.
A Fateful Encounter
On a hot August morning in 1970, a young Japanese woman named Aileen Smith appeared at Smith’s door. The Stanford University student took a summer job before her junior year working as a translator/coordinator for Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, who had hired Smith to do a commercial to promote Fuji color film to the Japanese market. The photographer, who only shot in black and white his entire life, took the gig to fund “Let Truth Be the Prejudice,” the 600-print retrospective exhibition Smith was organizing for the Jewish Museum in New York.
“We immediately connected,” recalls Aileen Smith. “While Dentsu filmed, Gene poured out his philosophy about journalism and photography to me — his whole reason for existing.” Moved by his words, she realized Smith needed someone to help him on the exhibition around the clock. She dropped out of school and got to work.
But Smith needed more than an assistant. “Gene had told friends he was so depressed that he was going to kill himself after he got the exhibition up,” she says. “This was a normal pattern: him needing to be saved both in work and in life. But I didn’t know that. I was just the next person who came along who thought if I didn’t do it, it would be the end.”
All Roads Lead to Minamata
About two months after they met, Eugene and Aileen Smith learned of the public health crisis in Minamara from Motomura Kazuhiko, a former civil servant who started his own publishing company who wanted to bring Smith’s exhibition to Japan. He suggested Smith travel to Minamata to photograph it over a period of several months.
“I think Motomura was brilliant in offering this idea to Gene. Everything he had done clearly led to Minamata,” Aileen Smith says, tracing the thread running through Smith’s career that connects his work made in the Pacific Theater of World War II with later photos essays documenting the work of doctors and nurses, as well as the industrial rise of Japan after the war.
“As soon as Gene and I heard about Minamata we decided to go,” Aileen Smith says. “For Gene it was an issue dear to his heart – prejudice, injustice, the courage to fight. For me, it was about committing myself to make a difference. It was also a kind of homecoming. I wanted to get back to my roots in the countryside. We both knew that working on this was the glue that would keep us together.”
The Struggle Continues
It is here, with their decision to travel to Japan to photograph the crisis for Life magazine, that the new film Minamata begins. Directed by Andrew Levitas and starring Johnny Depp and Minami, the 2020 film is based on Smith and Mioko Smith’s 1975 book of the same name, written after they were married. The film chronicles what would become Smith’s final photographic work — a harrowing portrait of environmental disaster driven by corporate greed and the ongoing fight for justice.
Working with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, Levitas crafts the film to reflect the way Smith saw the world, using the camera as a scalpel to extract the essence of the scene as it unfolds. “Smith could show you in a single frame both the most horrific and beautiful sides of humanity,” Levitas says. “He could show you dark and the light in a single image. I can’t think of another photographer who has consistently done that. We all aspire to do that: to give you something that is difficult to look at but at the same time so hopeful that you lean towards it to work it out and make the world better rather than sit back and turn away.”
This is the fundamental message of Minamata and the fight for justice that continues to this very day. Smith’ Junes 1972 Life cover story brought attention to the matter in the midst of a three-year trial against Chisso, which resulted in a verdict of negligence, with the corporation forced to pay ¥937 million to certified victims, the largest sum ever awarded by a Japanese court — but they did not uphold their end. “The Chisso Corporation, avoids responsibility for compensation by dissolving into two entities,” says Mioko Smith. “There is still no justice even for those who were toddlers during the peak of the pollution.”
In 2013, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a United Nations treaty was signed, but Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo received criticism for his claim that Japan had “recovered from” mercury pollution despite the fact that one year earlier, the government refused to accept claims for compensation from victims of Minamata disease. As of this writing, there are 10 ongoing lawsuits and government authorities have never once conducted an epidemiological study of the polluted area in Minamata.
“As a citizen of the world, Minamata felt like the right story to tell because there are so many parallels in other places around the world dealing with issues of industrial pollution, corporate greed, and malfeasance,” says Levitas. “It’s ongoing today and there are people struggling to be heard, to be seen, and fight their fight. To me it’s the most binding and connective tissue that we all have globally right now: the fight to live an unpolluted and healthy life.”
The Power of Journalism
While Eugene and Aileen Smith were journalists, not activists, the work they have done has been used to support the cause and honor the victims. “We didn’t let up one moment the whole time we were there,” says Aileen Smith. Although they only planned to stay three months, they realized they couldn’t walk away just because the story was published. “Events were evolving and we were committed to photographing them unfold. We were more interested in immersing ourselves rather than thinking about what effect the work may have out in the world. A book was not in our thoughts when we first started but it gradually evolved.”
With the exception of Smith’s self-published Hitachi: A Chapter in Image, neither had made a book before. While working on a 220-print Minamata exhibition, the book naturally evolved and they worked throughout the summer of 1974 to bring it together. At the time, Mioko Smith did not see their work as part of the historical record, but 50 years later she recognizes it as such.
“I hope the film leads people to want to know about the real Gene Smith, his actual work, and about Minamata, the people, what actually happened and what is happening even as the reader reads these words,” says Aileen Smith, who draws attention to Smith’s singular vision of journalism.
“He said there really is no objectivity, that a person is subjective, and that the important thing is to be honest and fair. For Gene there was no conflict between journalism and art. He titled his retrospective exhibition ‘Let Truth Be Prejudice’ in the hope of a world where our prejudgments are as close to the truth as possible. That’s a big responsibility for journalism to take on – to facilitate, to create a connection and understanding between the subjects and the viewers.”
A Catalyst for Thought
“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,” Eugene Smith wrote in 1974, two years after being attacked while documenting protests at Minamata, and losing partial sight in one of his eyes.
Although Smith stopped making photographs after Minamata, the series was arguably the most important work he had ever done, his sacrifice a testament to the power of collective action. His most famous photograph from the series, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, is a Madonna and child of modern life as the mother, Kamimura Yoshiko, cradles her severely deformed daughter who is the silent star of the film.
In an earlier scene in the film, Smith is left to care for Tomoko, despite his protests he is incapable. In a brief yet wistful scene, we witness him holding her in his arms by the sea, revealing that deep beneath Smith’s gruff surface, a tender heart still beats. Depp, who plays Smith, is nearly unrecognizable in the part, having transformed himself into the flawed figure who wears his psychic scars like war stripes.
“This film was Johnny’s brainchild,” Levitas says. “We both had a deep passion for Smith and in particular for this space. We saw it as an opportunity to do something positive and good in the world. This is a hard movie to get made for obvious reasons but the actual development, production and post was a dream: a bunch of artists who all believed in the same thing. It’s not something that happens every day.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
The W. Eugene Smith Grant, named after the photographer, is one of the largest endowments in photojournalism today. This year, instead of the usual $40,000 awarded to a single photographer, the W. Eugene Smith Fund will distribute a $10,000 grant to five winners. More information here.