W. Eugene Smith: Facing Confrontations in Photojournalism

During my short ten-years as an active photojournalist I faced many confrontations, mostly with authorities. I was arrested three times but never convicted of any crime. One civil case wound up in federal court and I was among a dozen or so people who were awarded damages.

A memorable confrontation occurred during coverage of a large rally of motorcycle gangs at the Danbury (CT) Fairgrounds. As I recall, a small group of gang members confronted me and told me to leave or they'd take my camera. I calmly said if they took my camera I'd be back with another AND the police. I took a few more pictures but left soon after.

Negotiating those kinds of confrontations is an important skill for photojournalists.

W. Eugene Smith was, and still is, a hero model for me. He sought to understand his subject AND make photos that would communicate deeper truths. Understanding and empathizing with his subjects was a key to understanding his photography. He faced confrontations with his photojournalism work which, I believe, ultimately lead to his untimely death.

I was doing some research to find a public domain photo of WES to post in combination with a PD photo of Henri Cartier-Bresson I have. While doing so I found a wonderful web site.

According to the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, "Many photographers today are working against the fashions and economics of modern publishing. The Fund was established in 1979 to seek out and encourage these independent voices."

His concern was neither monetary reward nor fame. His commitments were made good, to an extreme. It is reported that a three week project to document actually took three years to complete.

Smith was a brilliant but troubled photographer. It seems there were many conflicts in his life. He was involved in a number of controversies including one that shortened his life while documenting the industrial pollution in Minamata, Japan during 1971.

Minamata was both a fishing village and a "one company" industrial city in Japan. It was also the setting for a historic confrontation; the victims of Minamata disease versus the Chisso Corporation. The causal agent of the disease is methyl-mercury chloride (organic) mercury. Mercury (inorganic) was used as a catalyst in manufacturing acetaldehyde from acetylene. Small amounts left the plant as waste product; the rest of the organic mercury was created in the ocean from dumped inorganic mercury. The toxic waste discharged into the water, consumed by fish, then found itself by nutrition into the human body. Source

During January of 1972 Smith was severely beaten by Chisso Corporation thugs who wanted to prevent documentation of the pollution but his wife continued his work. The essay was published in 1975 as 'Minamata', words and photographs by W.E. Smith and A.M Smith. One of his most famous works, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, taken in December 1971 and published a few months after the 1972 attack, drew worldwide attention to the effects of Minamata disease. Source

He died prematurely in 1978 at the age of 60.

I don't know the exact circumstances of the attack, his medical treatment, etc. but, if I may be so bold as to say, it might have been preventable.

If you're interested in exploring other venues about confrontations of photojournalists, Salvador is a very powerful movie about this topic. Amazon calls it "a compelling drama based on the real experiences of journalist Richard Boyle in strife-ridden El Salvador in 1980-81," starring James Woods and James Belushi. It is one of Oliver Stone's less famous movies. Watch it and see what I mean.