Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath
Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning, was first discovered in that Japanese city in 1956. Caused by the release of methyl mercury in the 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 (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 daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. Although it was posed for Smith, the family subsequently asked the photo to be withdrawn from circulation.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. For his expose, Smith was attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees which left him with a permanently damaged eye and a crippled health.
The photos, however, led the government to take more direct actions and the company to pay compensation to 2,500 people. Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.