Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

with 9 comments


First housecats in Minamata, on the west coast of Kyushu in Japan, went berserk, jumping into the sea. Then it began to affect local fishermen, whose lips and limbs would tingle and then become numb. Their speeches slurred; many died. Women gave birth to deformed foetuses and blind children. It was termed Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Caused by methyl mercury in industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory from 1932 to 1968, the disease claimed thousands of lives surreptitiously while the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.

It was a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to the disease. Smith and his interpreter, a Japanese American student from Stanford University named Aileen Mioko Sprague (whom Smith would soon marry) were touring Japan for an exhibition of his works. They planned to stay in Minamata for three weeks, but ended up staying for three years. For eighteen dollars a month, they rented a house belonging to one of the victims, sharing a dirt-floored kitchen and bath, where they developed photos.

The most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. The pieta of our industrial age, critics called it, and the photoessay was ‘a case study in Japanese politics’ the New York Times wrote. Although the photo was posed for Smith, the family subsequently asked the photo to be withdrawn from circulation. The picture does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith’s works.

A month after this photo, on January 7th 1972, Smith joined other Minamata victims at a demonstration at Chisso’s plant near Tokyo, where he was attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees which left him with a permanently damaged eye and a crippled health. This attack made Smith a familiar face on local news. A Tokyo department store staged an exhibit of Smith’s photos, which was visited by 50,000 people in twelve days. The photos led the government to take more direct actions and the company to pay compensation. Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 6, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Politics, Society

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] är min egen tolkning av en av W Eugene Smiths japanbilder ”Tomoko Uemura in her bath Minamata 1973”. Jag vet inte om det fungerar att använda fotoreportage bilder för att göra naturbilder. […]

  2. Tear bursting.


    November 19, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    • Eugene Smith died in 1978 and the copyright of this and other Minamata photographs passed on to his ex-wife Aileen Smith who subsequently returned the copyright to the Uemura family who have expressly requested that Tomoko’s photograph no longer be used..

      In the words of Tomoko Uemura’s father: “I wanted Tomoko to be laid to rest and this feeling was growing steadily”. Aileen smith has stated: “This photograph would mean nothing if it did not honor Tomoko. This photograph would be a profanity if it continued to be issued against the will of Tomoko and her family. Because this was a statement about Tomoko’s life, it must honor that life and by it her death.”

      I will let the owner of this post decide what course of action to take.

      David Moritz

      March 3, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      • Agreed.


        July 9, 2013 at 8:05 pm

  3. […] clas­sic pho­to­jour­nal­is­tic images have been manip­u­lated in the past. Tokomo Uemura in her Bath from the Min­i­mata series by Eugene Smith was bleached for exam­ple to make the whites whiter. […]

  4. Link to press statement by Aileen Mioko Smith regarding withdrawing the photograph from future publication.


    bikeman Glenn

    January 17, 2014 at 6:28 pm

  5. […] outro exemplo. A foto horizontal Tomoko no banho, feita por W. Eugene Smith em 1971, mostra uma mãe dando banho numa adolescente cega, surda e muda […]

  6. […] Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath – It was a dramatic photographic essay (1971-73) by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to Minamata disease. The above photo, the most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed … […]

    Minamata Disease Photo

    September 20, 2016 at 7:34 pm

  7. I’m soooo very sorry👀Why I never knew this!! There’s so much kept from us: yet so much bs on media!! The pic is a poignant and profound image of compassion! Makes you wonder though what else is out there to environ-mentally destroy our health???

    Sara a mann

    December 9, 2016 at 7:04 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: