W. Eugene Smith Exposition

December 18th, 2010
by imagitect

Banner in FOAMOn Thursday the 16th yours truly went to the opening of the W. Eugene Smith exposition in FOAM. You can visit this all B&W visual treat until the 16th of March.

The photographer W. Eugene Smith, born in 1918 in Tucson, USA, is widely recognized as the originator of the photo essay. His work was published in several magazines including the famous American Life.
Eugene was a socially and politically engaged man and his pictures reflected his emotions and vision. He was also a perfectionist and workaholic, seldom satisfied with  the results of his work and was often disappointed by the way it was published, parts being omitted and changed by the editors. Working as a war photojournalist he was wounded in the Pacific and after World War II used and abused amphetamine and drink on a regular base.

After leaving his job at Life in 1954, he joined the well known photographers cooperative Magnum. He was commissioned to make a reportage about Pittsburgh. This turned out to be a very involved project and resulted in more than 11.000 negatives.

One of his most impressive projects was without doubt the Minamata project in Japan.

Below i’ll quote the text that accompanies the exposition in FOAM.

During the 1970s, awareness of the ecological damage provoked by the industrialized world was not yet widespread among the public. At that time both land and sea were being poisoned and there were no laws to protect them; few people had seen with their own eyes the devastating effects of pollution.
In 1971 Smith and his wife Alleen decided to document the horrifying case of Minamata, where a factory operated by the Chisso Corporation dumped mercury into waters used by fishermen, who then ate the contaminated fish, putting themselves at risk of contracting a ‘strange illness’. The photographer and his wife stayed for three years, living and surviving in the village, in order to take part first hand in the rebellion against the industrial and state powers, who refused to admit a direct link between the chemical dumping and the ‘strange illness,’ which justly became known as Minamata illness. And to draw the attention of the whole world, nothing was as effective as an article signed by W. Eugene Smith.
He was so devoted to his work that he was seriously wounded during confrontations with employees of Chisso, causing damage to various vertebrae and leading him to fear that he would be incapable of taking another picture. His already precarious health was seriously compromised and the episode indirectly shortened his life. Nonetheless, he luckily recuperated enough to once again use his camera.

The most famous image from the series - 20th Century Pieta - portrays the little girl Tomoko being bathed in the arms of her mother

The help of Aileen, who ended up taking a quarter of the published pictures, took notes and did research, was crucial to the work’s completion. The book is an authentic diary of the vicissitudes of the effected families’ struggles and suffering. Smith begins his prologue, “this is not an objective book. The first word that l’d eliminate from the lore of journalism is the word objective. That would be a great step toward truth in the ‘free’ press. And maybe ‘free’ should be the second word to go. Freed from these distortions, journalists and photographers could assume their real responsibilities… This is a passionate book.”
This passion is exactly what reached numerous publications throughout the world, and through them, millions of readers ultimately made aware of the risks to Mother Earth.

It was only last year that the Japanese government indemnified the victims of Minamata for its negligence in not putting an immediate stop to the ecological disaster. In 2001 Chisso Corporation paid 2.18 million dollars to the defendants.

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