A Case Study of a Documentary Portrait

Editor's Note: If you wish to view the photograph discussed in this article, it is still viewable online at www.masters-of-photography.com. Click on Smith, then click through the slides to the last one, which is "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath."

Eugene Smith's portrait of Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother has become a potent and recognizable symbol of the tragic consequences of industrial pollution. The photograph was taken by Eugene and his wife Aileen in 1971 and was published as part of a series of images on Minamata in LIFE magazine. Over the years it has been exhibited frequently in museums around the country and around the world, and has been published in numerous books.

In 1997, a French television crew requested permission to use the image in a show on the twentieth century's 100 most important photographs and contacted Tomoko's family about arranging an interview. The family balked. Though initially supportive of the use of the Tomoko photo to raise awareness about the disease, the family had become increasingly concerned about the way in which Tomoko's image was being exploited.

Tomoko's father, Yoshio Uemura, explained the decision not to grant further interviews or permission to use the photograph in an open letter presented at Oracle, an annual gathering of photography curators.

"I know what television interviews involve and also, many of the organizations that are working on our behalf are using the photograph in various media, many of them in places we do not know about," wrote Uemura. "I realize that this is necessary for numerous reasons, but I wanted Tomoko to rest in peace and this feeling welled up in me steadily."

Another letter was presented at the same Oracle gathering. This one was written by Aileen Smith, to whom all rights over the Minamata images reverted following Eugene's death. In response to Uemura's concerns, Aileen granted the Uemura family all rights of decision concerning the use of the Tomoko photo. Aileen also expressed the wish that "any museums who already own or are displaying the work would take the above into consideration when exhibiting the photograph in the future."

The decision to give the rights of a photograph to the subject or relatives of the subject has sparked controversy within the field of photography and art more generally. In the case of the Minamata photo, Smith was presumably interested in obtaining images that would draw attention to the problem of contamination and pollution in the Japanese village. This assumes some desire for positive change.

But what of the negative impact on the well-being or happiness of the subject, and what responsibility does the photographer have toward those individuals? Such ethical questions are bound to confront the photojournalist or documentary photographer at some point in his or her career. So we challenge you to think about the Minamata dilemma – what would you do?

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