The spread of humanity has seen a shift from rural living to a more heavily urban concentration of the population. The trend of urbanization has risen since the start of the 20th century especially and there have been severe consequences. This sample analytical essay, written by one the talented writers at Ultius, examines the photograph that sparked many emotions on the topic of urbanization: “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.”
“Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”: The Problem of Urbanization
Industrial pollution of terrestrial and marine habitats and mercury poisoning are some of the most heinous consequences of humanity’s urbanization. One example of an artist that shed light on these problems came from Eugene Smith’s photograph entitled: “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.” This photograph helped to bring awareness of the problems that urbanization has on an environmental level. When staying in Minamata from 1971 to 1973, Smith specifically aimed to bring Minamata disease to the public’s attention on a world scale through the use of photographs and factual information, however, at some point, he showed the intention of showing sympathy toward Tomoko as well.
History of Minamata disease
Minamata disease began its spread in the mid 1950’s when the people of the coastal town Minamata began to exhibit signs of a strange illness. Those afflicted claimed to have:
“numbness in their limbs and lips,” “difficulty hearing or seeing,” while others “developed shaking in their arms and legs, difficulty walking, even brain damage,” and some even “seemed to be going crazy, shouting uncontrollably,” (Kugler).
The people of the town were all linked together in that they all ate fish, so scientists believed that the fish, their main source of food, must have been getting poisoned. This brought almost immediate suspicion to the Chisso Corporation for their manufacturing procedures.
Corporate Greed in the City
The Chisso Corporation ran a large petrochemical plant in Minamata which was thought to be contributing to the problem of the poisoning of the town’s people. Initially, the corporation denied that they had anything to do with the illnesses that had befallen anyone that lived in Minamata and claimed innocence. This held until July of 1959. In that year, researchers found:
“organic mercury was the cause of Minamata disease,” (Kugler).
Chisso continued to attempt to refute the evidence that was found, and they continued to dump the chemical into the water source around Minamata, as it was their primary form of industrial waste. Later estimates found that the corporation had dumped as much as 27 tons of mercury into Minamata Bay, and this had severe consequences on the population. Many of the babies born to individuals of Minamata had the physical effects of what the mercury can do to infants, as they had extreme deformities that included:
- Gnarled limbs
- Mental retardation
- Blindness (Kugler)
Alerting the world
Photojournalism is one of the key elements to this disease being recognized and the suffering of the people of Minamata being heard by the rest of the world, however a question must be addressed before this can be examined: what is the purpose of photojournalism and other modern art forms? The photographer Jeff Janowski can best summarize the main purpose. He states,
“the impact of photojournalism on each generation has helped the character of a people by acting as glue to join a community into solidarity or by enlightening people’s once held hard beliefs as false, forcing them to a higher evolution of truth and turpitude,” (Janowski).
He is basically stating that photojournalism is not simply to shock individuals or a means for a person to gain notability through others’ suffering, it is a means to enlighten the population to a larger issue. The use of photographs that are shocking is a tool to really engrave the severity of a certain situation into the minds of those that read about the issue and view the images. A news story alone can be powerful, but the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is definitely applicable. A powerful image such as the one that Eugene Smith took shows the world just how real the story he was reporting on was.
Effectiveness of “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”
There were two major effects that this photograph taken by Eugene Smith had on the public.
- It helped to raise the general public’s knowledge of this situation. By showing shocking images of the effects that mercury poison has on individuals, many people called for harsher penalties on companies that dumped the chemical and for stricter regulations on what could or could not be dumped into a water source.
- The photo helped to raise public support for the people of Minamata. The photographs that Smith took showed that the people of the area were suffering at an alarming rate. Without the images that Smith unveiled to the world, most people would not have known that this tragedy had ever occurred. From Smith’s photos, the rest of the world was able to add its support to the people and help shift the limelight of blame to the corporation that had been recklessly poisoning the water supply of Minamata.
The emotional response of the Smith’s photo
The photo that Eugene Smith took served a basic purpose. It is an attempt to encapsulate the suffering that the people of Minamata have experienced while still adding the aspect of the importance of a loving family to the photo. The staged photo was made in this way so that people could get many feelings through viewing it. On first glance, the photograph would shock them, however on a deeper examination they can see almost comforting elements to it. The photograph is just a means to enhance the story of the people of Minamata that Smith was attempting to tell the world about.
To fully appreciate the images that Eugene Smith presented to the world, in particular “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”, it is important to know whom Eugene Smith was. Eugene Smith was a U.S. photojournalist that, by the time the Minamata images were taken, was a well-traveled and versed man. He has covered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor as a correspondent for Life magazine in the Pacific Theatre. He also gained notability for his work with the people of a Spanish community where the village’s soil had been exhausted yet the villagers continued to struggle on and live their lives. He famously stated about his photography:
Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses to awareness. Much depends on the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought. Someone-or perhaps many-among us may be influenced to heed reason, to find a way to right that which is wrong, and may even search for a cure to an illness. The rest of us may perhaps feel a greater sense of understanding and compassion for those whose lives are alien to our own. Photography is a small voice. I believe in it. If it is well conceived, it sometimes works. (Answers).
As one can plainly see, Smith was a man that wanted to change the world for the better through his photography.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Visual arts have long been compared to verbal communication in their effectiveness in communicating critical information. Often visual images are considered to be more effective than speech. Eugene Smith and his photographic documentation of the atrocities of Minamata demonstrated the effectiveness of visual communication.
Visual aspects of “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”
“Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” is by far the most moving image of the photo series that Smith took in Minamata. This image originally appeared in a Life magazine issue and has many notable features to it. There are two distinct visual aspects that add the photo’s effectiveness:
- The use of lighting in the photograph. The majority of the photograph is very dark except for the subjects (the mother bathing her deformed daughter). This helps to draw the eye almost exclusively to the subjects, as there is not much to notice in the form of a background. This technique also helps to give the feeling of the darkness and despair that the people of Minamata must have felt about their current affairs in response to the actions of the Chisso Corporation. The photograph encapsulates the feeling of being in a situation with no real hope for change.
- The use of physical size. The photo covers the entire two-page spread of the magazine that it appears in. This makes it so that no person looking through the magazine could possibly miss the picture by glancing through it. Additionally, the large size of the photograph helps to show the smaller details that could be missed if it had been resized to a half page or even full page size. The larger size allows the viewer to really focus in on the physical characteristics of the subjects of the photograph. One can see the emotion of the mother bathing her daughter as well as the vacant stare of the daughter and the physical deformation that she has suffered as a result of the mercury poisoning. By being as large as the photograph is, the emotions of this picture can be fully appreciated by the audience (Smith).
The style of “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”
On a stylistic note, the photograph has some traits that are worth note as well. The image is almost poetic in its depiction, which is to be expected as photographs have long been considered to be the physical manifestation of memory. We can see that the mother, regardless of the physical state of her daughter, has nothing but love for her. The way that she looks down on her has the feeling of nothing but the deepest love and commitment. It adds a deep level of sadness to the image that the daughter’s eyes do not meet those of her mother, rather they stare upward into space. This vacant type stare of the daughter adds a haunting effect to the photo. A viewer of the photograph has no way of knowing how far the effects of mercury poisoning have gone to the daughter. Is she even aware of where she is or what she is doing? If the answer to these questions is no, then this only adds the appreciation of the love from the mother and the sadness of the entire photograph. This humanistic style of photograph shows that even in these awful situations, the people of Minamata are enduring and continuing on in their lives by whatever means possible (“Iconic Photos”).
Smith evokes sympathy through his photograph
This particular photograph shows the sympathy that Eugene Smith felt towards not only the subjects of the picture but the community as a whole. As a staged photograph, Eugene Smith had the ability to get his subjects to pose in the way that he wanted them to. He was, therefore, the person that added the emotional context of the picture utilizing the psychological aspect of human emotion. By his direction, the subjects are arranged into their position, the lighting was chosen, and even the location of the photograph was determined. This shows that Smith was attempting to make people feel this great amount of sympathy for the subjects and, generally, the people of Minamata. He was trying to create an image that would showcase the struggle of the daily life of the people of the affected region. By showing the physical suffering of one of the subjects and the emotional turmoil of the other, Smith creates an image that appeals to the vast majority of the population. Any compassionate person will be able to relate to the mother of the photograph, and anyone that sees the physical deformations of the daughter will feel sympathy towards the environment in which the people of Minamata live.
Assault on Smith
The lasting effects of this photograph, and the rest of the series, were not all positive for Eugene Smith or his wife. In January of 1972, Chisso employees attacked the two as they attempted to record and document a confrontation between the mercury poisoning victims and the factory employees of Chisso in Goi. The injuries that Smith received were severe. He almost lost the use of his sight and was partially crippled from the attack. According to Smith himself a group of about 100 company men were ordered to physically beat him for being involved in the situation. He claimed that they
“grabbed me and kicked me in the crotch and snatched the cameras, then hit me in the stomach. Then they dragged me out and picked me up and slammed my head on the concrete,” (Answers).
With the compilation of the injuries that he received, and the advanced age he had reached, this project would be Smith’s last major story. He died in Tucson, Arizona six years later in 1978.
Publication for the masses
The work that Eugene Smith got from his visits to Minamata was later put together in a book written by Aileen M. Smith. The book is entitled: Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage. The book itself looks at the story of the of how the Chisso company attempted to cover up what it had done to the people of Minamata by lying about the effects of the mercury they had dumped into the bay. It also looks at the people’s rise against the company and demands for their compensation and for the company to claim that they had some responsibility in the mercury poisoning of the Minamata’s population. The book makes excellent use of the photos that Smith took during his time in Japan and is told compellingly by Aileen Smith, Eugene’s wife. The book also blames the government for not taking action against the Chisso Corporation and essentially letting the people of the Minamata suffer through the years of consuming mercury. This book not only gives a compelling story about the suffering and general hardships of the people of the Minamata, but it also reveals, in fantastic detail through its photographs, the physical toll that mercury poisoning can have on a population when it is left unchecked (Smith & Smith).
Reparations to the people brought about by “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”
The story of the people of Minamata, though it incorporates much physical and mental suffering, does not have a completely unhappy ending. The people of the area would eventually get some form of justice served. Beginning in 1982, forty people filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government for looking the other way at Chisso’s actions and refusing to prevent them from stopping their dumping of a known dangerous chemical. This legal battle raged for nearly two decades until the Osaka High Court determined that the Health and Welfare Ministry branch of the government:
“should have begun regulatory action to stop the poisoning at the end of 1959, after it concluded that Minamata disease was caused by mercury poisoning,” (Kugler).
This was the first of a series of legal victories for the people of Minamata. The Chisso Corporation was then court ordered to pay $2.18 million to the plaintiffs as a form of damage compensation. A final legal victory came in 2004, however. The Supreme Court of Japan forced the government to pay approximately $703,000 to the victims of Minamata disease as a means of damage compensation. Additionally, the Environmental Minister “bowed in apology to the plaintiffs,” (Kugler). Though it is important to state the no amount of financial compensation given to those affected by Minamata disease will ever truly compensate for the inactions of the government or the careless nature of the Chisso Corporation, however the victims can take solace in the fact that at least those that were responsible for the lives needlessly lost to Minamata disease have accepted that they are accountable for their actions. Though it is small, for the victims living in Minamata, it is a victory nonetheless.
Eugene Smith’s photographs were some of the most important images of those that suffered from Minamata disease. “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” is of particular significance in his photo series. This powerful image shows the plight of the people in Minamata as they struggle to deal with the lasting effects of the overdose of mercury that the population was exposed to because of the Chisso Corporation. The image itself serves as a beacon for which those affected by the disease and those concerned about the implications of what lead to the disease can rally behind. Smith’s photographs, as well as his book, helped to shed the public limelight on this situation. Capturing the raw, physical emotion of his subjects, Smith presented the world with a powerful image of hope, despair, love, and suffering all at once. The moving image that he took shocked the world and played a serious factor in the advancement of the people of Minamata’s case against both the government and the Chisso Corporation. Smith paid the physical toll for his work, as the photographs nearly cost the photographer his sight. The lasting effects of this photograph are to serve as a reminder to the delicate power that must be balanced by humanity. The continuing development of urbanization must be controlled so that the public does not suffer in the name of progress.
Janowski, Jeff. “The Purpose of Photojournalism .” JJ Photography. 28 2012: n. page. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. .
Kugler, Mary. “Minamata Disease.” About.com. 23 2004: n. page. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. .
Smith, Eugene. Life. 1972: n. page. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Smith, Eugene, and Aileen Smith. Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage. 1st. Holt, Rinehart , 1975. Print.
“Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.” Iconic Photos. 06 2009: n. page. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. .
“W. Eugene Smith.” Answers. 2012: n. page. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. .