Saturday, May 20, 2017


I have had this book, from W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, for a while, and have been soaking in it pretty thoroughly.

The usual questions seem silly. Is it good? Does it work? Of course it does. This isn't new work, this isn't even recent, and there are really no questions here. It is monumental, the work of the acknowledged master of the form, at the peak of his power. This is a good book, it is powerful, it is successful. It is a book of its time, and one of the most potent expressions of that time that I have seen. It stands with Silent Spring (published 10 years before the work began) and perhaps bookends that era of change.

Looking back on the era coming to a close as this book is published seems incredible to me. Corporations still do plenty of harm, capitalism seems still be be largely about shoveling off expenses, risks, damage, onto those least able to complain about them. Still, in the world we live in today all but the most rabid corporatists seem to take a basic suspicion of corporations as perfectly normal. It's not even radical to suspect that Monsanto is lying about, well, everything, to the extent that even the things they say which are obviously true are suspect. US President Nixon signs the EPA in to law a year before the Smiths move to Minamata.

The book is at least as much words as it is pictures. There are words, lots of them. There are pictures, lots of them. Sometimes the pictures simply illustrate the words, more often they complement the words. There is much to be learned here about how to marry these two forms together. The Smiths tell us of the town's connection to the sea, and then they show us, but the pictures are not direct illustrations. Rather, they are a parallax view of the same ideas, shown to us at roughly the same time. Neither provides a detailed chronology of events (although a chronology is included in an appendix). Neither pictures nor words claim to even give anything but a single view, a fragmentary glimpse, of any one thing. It is more poetry than prose.

The story of Minamata is vastly more complex than I ever knew, more fraught, more interesting, and more terrible. I'm going to extract a pair of threads of the book, and talk about them.

Since I've been thinking about ethics, and because I got the book specifically to try to understand Smith's take on the ethical concerns, these threads do concern ethics. Don't expect any conclusions, I don't think I have any. This is, if anything, a meditation on the subject.

Some background. Minamata has long been tied to the sea. Fishermen, for generations, wrested their livelihood, as well as food for the town, from the waters of Minamata Bay. In the 20th century, Minamata became as well a company town, as Chisso built a large plant there to manufacture acetaldehyde. For decades, they used a mercury catalyzed process, and dumped methyl mercury into those same waters, the waters of Minamata Bay. It turns out this stuff is pretty toxic.

There ensued a series of investigations, of outbreaks of Minamata Disease. There were coverups, denials, and settlement after settlement, over a period decades.

The upshot of the circumstances, though, was that the town was fractured into multiple factions. The disease came from the sea, the sea which had always sustained them. The fishermen didn't want to believe that. The disease came from the company, and the employees didn't want to believe that. The disease became stigmatized for all these reasons and more. Many active sufferers denied being ill, or denied that Minamata Disease was their illness. Others shunned the sick. Familes and friendships shattered. Chisso management, of course, obeyed their natural loyalty to the company and sided as far as possible with any faction that wanted to downplay, to deny, the company's role, the severity of the sickness, and so on. There were many such factions to side with.

Into this chaos arrive the Smiths, a white man and a half-Japanese wife. Outsiders both, and only one speaks the language. She doesn't even speak the local dialect (although she picks up up pretty quickly). Smith is here to document a story that everyone has a strong opinion on, and that many opine should not be told at all. Even the most open of the maimed, the ill, suffered from the social stigma of the disease. Many sufferers were children, many sufferers were dying.

The tension of ethical concerns rings through the book. A wife gives permission to photograph her dying husband, who is well beyond giving consent. The doctor, however, asserts that she is just being nice, that Smith should not photograph. Smith photographs the man's hands.

Without much effort, we can detect a mesh of duty, of obligation, of consent given and withheld, that connects everyone. The company men, the patients, the Smiths, extending to us, the viewers. The Smiths felt, I think correctly, that much could reasonably be sacrificed to tell this story, the story is that important. And yet, they photographed the children, maimed, damaged. The parents, no doubt, gave permission. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The exposure is made, the print is published. Fin.

And yet, the social situation is fluid. Children, the lucky ones at any rate, grow up and develop their own ideas. The pictures float around in the world, become popular, become valuable, and yet the consent, given once and for all time in 1972, is inflexible, permanent. This is, obviously, absurd, and yet how can it be otherwise? We cannot function as a society if contracts, promises, can be revoked willy-nilly.

It happens that now, paradoxically, I own a physical copy of "Tomoko in her Bath", the copyright to which was given back to the girl's family by Aileen Smith, a photograph that is so difficult, so intimate, that the family has not, to my knowledge, given permission to reproduce it since. I too am complicit. Tomoko became an adult, albeit never capable of communication, and then died. She was never able to give or deny consent. This possession may be the one I feel least comfortable with of all the things I own, and yet, I will keep it. The conflict I feel is resolved by the strength of the book which contains the picture I don't want to possess.

Tellingly, Eugene Smith opens the book by remarking that "objective" is a word that should be struck from journalism. He and his wife inserted themselves into the story, and were able thereby to tell it far better. The account is biased, but not, that I can detect, unfair. You'd think that living in Minamata the Smiths would be anti-Chisso, but this does not seem to be the case, which leads us to the second thread of the two I promised you at the outset.

We see throughout hints and remarks that suggest the conflicts felt by the Chisso employees, the people who made up the corporate entity. Where the Smiths provide detail on any individual, it is clear that the people of Chisso empathized with the patients, with the victims, but were constrained by their loyalty to Chisso-the-entity to work against those same people. The doctor who demonstrated that Chisso's waste was likely the cause, the engineer who testified reluctantly for a year, and most importantly the president of Chisso. The president who, incredibly, kept a shrine in which was written the names of every patient, and in which he prayed while simultaneously negotiating for the future of his company against the better interests of those patients.

The Chisso men knew that, like consent given once to the photographer, ground given to the victims would never be recovered. Give up too much, and the corporate entity could fail (and it nearly did in the end, under the burdens it was forced to finally accept). Smith, as far as I can tell, never suggests that Chisso's people were evil, or even that their actions were particularly evil. Wrong, inhumane, certainly. And evil was certainly done, but by some gestalt of all that existed. Likewise, perhaps, town folk who shunned the sick were not evil, and yet, likewise, evil was done.

In the early 1970s, a small group of victims won a suit against the company, setting compensation terms. This triggered direct negotiation by a much larger group of victims, demanding the same terms. Chisso, correctly, claimed that they could not afford to pay that much. In the end, one of the victims smashed a glass ashtray and with a fragment slashed his wrist in the crowded negotiation room. He exclaiming loudly that without the money, he could not live. The president (who, let us recall, Smith has been at some pains to point out is basically a good man) breaks. The president says that they will pay. The president's empathy with the victims at last overwhelms his appalling loyalty to the corporate entity.

And that's it. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The president has spoken, the company will pay. And did pay. In the end, they needed a government bailout to survive, but they paid.

There is nothing in this scenario I can imagine occurring in a modern American company. The president would have been immediately replaced with a new president by the board of directors, who themselves are human but hold themselves conveniently distant from the victims and are thus able to remain monsters. Negotiations would probably still be locked in stasis to the enrichment of lawyers all around.

Whether good men or evil populate it, the corporate entity acts to protect itself, and it has learned how better to do so. Don't let those people negotiate, and make sure the ashtrays are made of plastic if you do. Somewhere, in some corporate archive, surely there is in a book of recommendations written by some basically decent corporate drone, the notation that glass ashtrays should be removed from conference rooms used for negotiation. Evil is done, and yet nobody in particular has done it.

So we see again a web of duty, obligation, consent, loyalty, connecting the corporate entity, the corporate men, the victims, a web that extends, perhaps, to you and me.

On the one hand we have the problem of corporate pollution, and more generally the problems of corporate greed. Corporations operate under the theory that if it has not yet been lost in court, then it is not only legal, it is "meet and just", it is proper. If it increases profits, it is actually the responsibility of management to pursue that course.

On the other hand, we have the problems of photojournalism, and of photographic storytelling in general. There is a loud school of thought that asserts that if it is legal, it is good, it is proper. These people say things like "you have no expectation of privacy in public" and therefore justify their photography of people in public. A school of thought, really the same one in disguise, argues that if a rule says that you should not photograph something, then a photograph of that is necessarily wrong, improper, without further investigation.

Just as corporations could do with a bit more empathy, a bit more humanity, a more nuanced approach, so too could photographers.

Gene Smith had no patience for "objectivity" in journalism, and very little patience for any sort of literal detail-by-detail approach to truth. His pictures are manipulated, the sequence of pictures is more manipulated. They're not even in chronological order! The text skips vast swathes of detail, leaves out chunks of information, focuses in on exact transcripts of this conversation, in on that minor detail, chosen specifically to make this point or that, all overtly to serve the author's passion. The Smiths struggled with consent, with issues of what pictures they could properly take and which they could not, throughout the project. In the end, they followed their own judgement, making best choices they could to balance the needs of the story -- and of the world -- against the needs of their subjects.

The power, the great and terrible power, of the photograph is its basic truth, its indexical relationship with the world it depicts. In the end, we must take what photographs seem best to us. With humility and awareness of the awful power we're wielding, with empathy for our subjects. In the end, we must take due care with these pictures. Consent, legalities, details of this and that, fade to nothing before the vast web of obligation and duty that binds the subject, the photographer, and all of us who look at the picture, together. This is not to suggest that we can do without them, surely not. But these are only the beginning, the obvious and trivial bits and pieces of what is proper, what is just.

To stop with "it's legal and I have a signed consent" and declare ourselves morally clean is utterly wrong, the real situation is much larger, and your chances for moral correctness are probably nil anyways. Similarly, to assume that "legal" and "consent" are inviolable prerequisites is to make essentially the same error. It's bigger and more complicated than that.

Accept that you will probably fail, if you are doing anything of any weight at all. W. Eugene Smith failed, at least once. He did not predict the power and consequences of "Tomoko in her bath", he did not predict that the consent given would not, in the end, be enough to cover his debt. He did not know, he could not know, that the connections between Gene Smith, Tomoko Uemura, her family, and all of us in the world would flow and change and eventually become something that even the importance of the story could not overcome his duty.

You will fail too, at least if you take pictures of people, if you do any work with weight and meaning. It's practically built in. Consent, once given, cannot be easily revoked. The picture, once published, cannot be recalled. You will do harm, if you take enough pictures.

Try to do more good than harm.

Gene and Aileen Smith, in this book, and shown us the way on both fronts simultaneously.

Thanks, guys.


  1. "You will fail too,...." thanks for a fantastic essay!!!

  2. An excellent piece, Andrew. Thanks.

    What's the bottom line? Perhaps only that the bottom line is fraught with danger. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    Perhaps these question ought to be asked - who will benefit from non-publication? Who will benefit from publication? From the strict application of ethics, whatever that me be interpreted as being?

    Will more harm be done from remaining silent? Will there be less harm in publishing, if such publication can alter a potentially harmful situation, even if a different degree of harm is rendered to others?

    Consent, ethics, duty, objectivism,subjectivism, bias etc - it's a very tangled world in which we operate.

    Failure is a given. One simply cannot appease (as opposed to please), everyone.
    A modicum of self truth and individual integrity may go a long way when making decisions such as these.


  3. Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I am going to read it again.

  4. What an essay! Thanks, Andrew. There's much more food for thought in it than I can grasp at the moment. I'll put a printed copy of it in my Gene Smith book.

  5. Nicely done, Andrew -- you really should stick to examining the Truly Good Stuff, and give up stomping all over the worthless bottom feeders.


    1. As you know Andrew, I totally agree! The Low Hanging Fruit folks are a good diversion at times though! :)

  6. Thank you for all the kind words!

    (are you people working together to modify my behavior, or is feeling I have of being gently herded purely emergent?)