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Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by William Eugene Smith - Inspirational Story behind a Photo

Updated on March 31, 2016

Minamata Tragedy and Eugene Smith

He was Tired and exhausted while he waiting the good moment to take a picture. The photojournalist William Eugene Smith (1918 -1978) was made photo-essay of Minamata tragedy in Japan on 1971. One of the photos “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath” was shocking the world when published in for the first time in Life magazine on June 1972. Protest comes from around the world and blaming the Chisso Corporation.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by William Eugene Smith
Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by William Eugene Smith | Source

Hundreds of people including children and women was contaminating and poisoning by mercury from Chisso Corporation. Waste water with methyl mercury was contaminating the Minamata Bay. Chisso is chemical factory that using mercury catalyst where it wastes of highly toxic chemical methyl mercury was poisoning land and water in Minamata Bay. Fish and seafood catch from ocean nearby was highly contaminated. In other part, animal like chicken, pig, dog, was contaminated too and dead. Consuming food from contaminated fish and meat was impacted horrible and dangerously the Minamata people. Water wastes dangerous impacts then known as Minamata diseases. For human body, it is impacted neurological syndrome for human that causes some symptoms, deformity, paralyses, and to death.

Tomoko Uemura in LIFE Magazine 2nd June 1972
Tomoko Uemura in LIFE Magazine 2nd June 1972 | Source

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

Photo of “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath” was shocking human heart. How if it happen to our daughter? Eugene Smith was waiting till noon when a mother takes her little daughter to bathing chamber. The girl is Tomoko Uemura. These photos are one of significant contribution to Minamata people who advocate their life from mercury pollution. After more than 30 years of struggle, in March 2001, Minamata people won.

Polluted water and Hand of Tomoko Uemura in LIFE Magazine 2nd June 1972
Polluted water and Hand of Tomoko Uemura in LIFE Magazine 2nd June 1972 | Source

There are around two thousands victims who most of them had died. Chisso Corporation is obliged to pay compensation and cleaning the pollution. Five years after her photos publication, in the age of 21 years old, Tomoko Uemura closed her eyes and rest in peace in 1977. One year later, Eugene Smith died in 1978 in New York. Smith ex-wife feels that she did not has right to deserve the copyright. She flight to Japan and returns the copyright of Tomoko Uemura photos to her parent.

Master Peaces of Eugene Smith

Most of photographer and journalist agreed that Photo of “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath” is the master peace of Smith works. The story behind the photo session was touching. Uemura parent agreed to take picture whileTomoko taking bath with Ryoko Uemura her mother. The family would like to tell the world how is the sorrow of their daughter and their family grief.

William Eugene Smith
William Eugene Smith | Source

Tomoko mother want the picture in bath chamber when Tomoko enjoy her bath time. Eugene Smith and parent waits till noon. The afternoon sun light is entering the chamber through windows. The light illuminates the face of Tomoko and her mother. Ryoko has little smile while look her daughter face. Tomoko face up to the ceiling as if looking for sky and heaven. Smith aim his camera and taking picture while he also realizes tears falling down from his eyes.

Tomoko's hand, LIFE magazine 1972
Tomoko's hand, LIFE magazine 1972 | Source

Inspirational Story behind a Photo

What is the inspirational story from “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath” for us? Eugene Smith with his camera, passion of photography, has made our eyes opened and more deeply see and feel the human sorrow and grief. The photo taken in 1971 and in March 2001, Minamata people won their case against Chisso Corporation. Why it is take too long about 30 years of struggle?

I remember the old song of Bob Dylan the “Blowing in the Wind”. The lyric song asked us: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” Is it the answer should blowing in the wind? We should take action to protect our environment for the next generation today.


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