Friday, May 21, 2010

W. Eugene Smith

A few weeks ago someone on Twitter asked how much sushi they could eat without worrying about mercury. My reply was to ask if they'd ever heard of Minimata Disease.

I spent a lot of time when I had my first computer looking up people I had admired through the years; I still do as new information pops up all the time.

When my Dad and I first started playing with photography around 1967, we knew someone who was a member of a black and white "salon print" club, started attending meetings and then joined. Among the many names of the photographers they all admired I kept hearing of W. Eugene Smith. If you've seen WW2 photographs from "Life" magazine, you've most likely seen some of the work that made him famous.

In the early 70's he and his wife moved to Minimata, Japan as he worked on a photo essay about the effects of the Chisso Corporation's dumping of mercury in their wastewater from 1937-1968. The disease named for the city, first diagnosed in 1956, was the result of the mercury accumulation in the fish and shellfish that those surrounding the bay lived on. Though the deaths had gone on for more than 30 years the government nor the company did much to halt them.

Smith tried to use the power of the photo essay to make the world take notice of the plight of the villagers. His reward was a beating at the hands of company employees on January 7, 1972 that was so terrible that his sight in one eye deteriorated, his health was permanently damaged and slowly worsened until his fatal stroke in 1978. Their attempt to stop his work, however, failed as he still finished his essay, including a photo called "Tomoko Uemura in her Bath"; the most famous of the series, showing a mother bathing her crippled daughter. Though withdrawn from circulation by Smith's widow Aileen at the request of the girl's family after her death (she gave the copyright to them so they could decide when and where it could be used) a Google search will still find it. Barack Obama has cited seeing it in a textbook as part of what has influenced his view of environmental issues.



The photo I'm going to include here is "Tomoko's Hand", from Wikipedia and credited to the Aileen Archive. Smith's widow Aileen has continued his fight to bring the attention to Minimata disease. His prints are yet again on display at a museum on the East Coast right now; his wife was just in Japan for a commemoration of the anniversary of the date the disease was tied to the mercury discharge from Chrisso's plant.



Chisso had paid small settlements even before WW2 began for other chemicals they had released into the fishery; as this began they deployed water treatment systems that didn't really treat the water; legal maneuvering; minimal financial settlements...their tactics seem to have been a blueprint for other companies all over the world, ones we've become all to familiar with.

They continue to this day; there are still lawsuits, still "spin" going on (one of the newest is referring to "Mad Hatter's Disease" instead of calling it "Minimata Disease" to disassociate themselves from it).

As I look out into the Gulf of Mexico and see all that is transpiring there; as I think of the $500,000 acoustic shut-off valve that would have shut the well down immediately when the "blow-out preventer" the company had "altered" from it's original design and left with dead batteries in it (the acoustic shut-off that is required elsewhere in the world but exempted for all wells in the Gulf by Mssr's Bush and Cheney); as I see the almost million gallons of a dispersant that's been illegal to use in Britain for 10 years because of it's toxicity; as I see those who had their hands on the throttle as the train left the tracks allowed to say what can and can't be done towards clean-up and mitigation...

I sometimes wonder if we ever truly learn from anything!

May the weekend be kind to each of you!

alan

12 comments:

Naukishtae said...

Alan.. as usual, another very good well written post.. thank you, both for the post.. and the importance of what you have said.. ..

Calamity Jen said...

I had never heard of Minimata disease. Yet another case of a big corporation causing mayhem and getting away with it for years and years. You're right: it's as though we'll never learn.

BP continues to sit and scratch their heads while non-profit organizations such as Matter of Trust take the initiative to collect stockings, hair and fur to create "hair booms" to soak up the oil.

zilla said...

Very well done.

I've got friends boycotting BP stations. I think that does more harm than good and fails to get the message across to those who need to hear it.

WHAT do you think people could & should be doing?

alan said...

1. From now on, no matter where the rig is titled, it meets US safety standards; the blow-out preventer is not modified and is inspected before it's put in by the Coast Guard just like the rig; and all rigs have acoustic shutoffs. Right now, only US titled rigs have to meet US standards; this one was titled in the Marshall Islands both for tax and less restrictive safety measures. If you want to drill on our lease, you meet our standards!

2. All existing rigs are brought as close as possible to US standards and if possible, retro-fitted with acoustic shutoffs.

3. The first time BP tries to reneg or files a court case challenging charges for damages or clean up, their leases are revoked and re-sold to pay for them.

4. The oil state Senators (Oklahoma and Texas) need to quit blocking the lifting of the $75 billion damage cap that they got put in after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

alan

alan said...

On that safety inspection piece above; right now the inspection for US titled rigs takes several weeks; the one for a foreign titled rig takes 4 or 5 hours...

alan

zilla said...

Can't argue with common sense, Alan.

(Unless you're a politician or a multi-millionaire or both.)

Hawaiianmark said...

You are amazing, man.

Thanks.

Ange said...

I'd never heard of Minimata disease, either. Which could be a reason why we keep not learning from our mistakes.

Another brave photographer I need to read more about.

Well done, sir.

智能 said...

凡是遇到困擾的問題,不要把它當作可怕的,討厭的,無奈的遭遇,而要把它當作歷練、訓練和幫助。.............................................

Ms.LizzyBeth said...

I have a neighbor who used to work on oil rigs for quite a few years back when he was younger, and he was telling a group of us neighbors the other day that if you look real closely at the videos of the oil pouring out into the water you will be able to see that they have not shut down the pumps. He said that if they are shut off, which would obviously slow down then stop the spray of oil (natural pressure would have ran out weeks ago) they would be able to easily cap the pipe but there is a chance that they would not be able to restart the oil flow to an alternate location. So although they are losing tons of oil, it is simply a drop in a large bucket of water and the loss of oil revenue and cost of clean-up is pocket change compared to what they would lose if they shut down the pumps and then were unable to draw from the oil source again when they restarted them.

偉誠 said...

好文不寂寞~支持!!!!@@a 搞錯了,這不是論壇推文 XDDD.........................

Green tea said...

What is going on in the Gulf, is just too depressing for words.
I think they could have stopped this long ago if they weren't trying to find a way to save the oil.
Cheney should be in jail..
They almost sent Nixon there for a lot less.....