Articles by Aileen M. Smith
The Photograph “Tomoko and Mother in the Bath”
Aileen M. Smith Collection in the photography collection of The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, W. Eugene Smith photography
Exhibition Catalog, 2008
The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
This is an edited, revised (2006, 2020) version of Aileen Mioko Smith's statement
at a press conference held at Arles/Perpignan by France Photo Fetes, on July 5, 2001.
The following is Aileen Mioko Smith’s statement explaining her decision to no longer release the photograph “Tomoko and Mother in the Bath” by W. Eugene Smith.
“Tomoko and Mother in the Bath” was taken by W. Eugene Smith during our project of photographing Minamata between the years 1971 and 1974. Taken on a chilly December afternoon in 1971, in the little bathing room, the air was quiet but intense as we all four in bated breath made this statement. It would never have happened if the will of the photographer had merely been asserted upon his subjects.
I believe it is the viewer that creates the power in this photograph , completing its image. And so this photograph has been in a constant process of being re-created over the decades since its making.
Gene said that as photographer he had two responsibilities. One was to his subjects and the other was to his viewers. He said if both responsibilities were met, this automatically would meet his responsibility to his editors. “Integrity” and stubbornness to preserve it were what Gene held most high.
The decision I made as holder of copyright to the photograph “Tomoko and Mother in the Bath” was very much because I believe in what Gene said, and because I wish to honor his tradition. My decision to no longer release this photograph was made after a great deal of deliberation, with love and care.
I would like to tell you a little about Tomoko's family. Photography is neither medicine nor god and the photograph “Tomoko and Mother in the Bath,’' in spite of its worldwide release, could not cure Tomoko's illness, the result of being contaminated with deadly organic mercury from a Japanese sea polluted with industrial waste. Her mother had unknowingly eaten contaminated fish while pregnant with Tomoko and the poison had gone through the placenta to the child. Tomoko's parents called their eldest a “treasure child” because she had absorbed the poison that would have remained otherwise in her mother. Because of Tomoko having taken away the poison from her mother, none of Tomoko’s siblings, five girls and a boy, were afflicted with Minamata Disease like Tomoko.
Prejudice remained, and still does to this day, against those whose family members are afflicted with Minamata Disease. This makes marriage difficult if not impossible in some cases. Tomoko passed away in 1976, shortly after her rites of passage into adulthood, and shortly before her siblings reached marriageable age.
Tomoko’s parents to this very day remain firm in their desire to rid the world of pollution. “Extermination” is the word Tomoko's father uses. And so they care that this photograph not be erased from this earth. And so be it.
However, after Tomoko’s death, this photograph meant something different. It wasn’t about Tomoko anymore, a life being lived, but about continuing to reach out to the entire world, seeking the extermination of pollution, expressing the love of mother and child.
To be honest, over the years it became a greater and greater burden for me to continue to answer requests for publication of this photograph. I kept telling myself, “I know people have been moved, even their lives changed by this image. I must continue to release it to the world. It is my duty.” But gradually this act was turning into something ugly. I knew that Tomoko's parents, now nearly a quarter-century since her death,wanted Tomoko to rest. “Yasumasete agetai” (“we want to let her rest”) were their words. And I felt the same.
This photograph would mean nothing if it did not honor Tomoko. This photograph would be a profanity if it continued to be issued against the will of Tomoko and her family. Because this was a statement about Tomoko’s life, it must honor that life and by it her death.
As copyright holder, I must also meet my responsibility to the viewer; I must not lie to her or him. How could I publish this photograph, knowing but concealing the fact that this photograph should not be released? What about the world of photography? Will this decision to terminate future publication abet a “dangerous trend?” I do not believe so. This particular decision made on the Tomoko photograph was an act of exercising copyright, not relinquishing it. I believe the decision contributes to the empowerment of photography, photography as art and journalism.
There is a fight to be fought, and it must be the right fight that we fight. Each case is different. And I believe this decision will add strength to photography, not weaken it.
If all subjects and viewers in the world could be confident that each photograph that is seen in the world is a result of careful deliberation, not an accident of mass production, the power of photography would soar.
Finally, to me it is as though Tomoko is sending us out into a world-this time without her-saying, “Now it is your turn. Now you must express with your art and your journalism the statement this image made, and even more!”
The challenges are great before us, whether we are photographers, working in the world of photography, or, like me, simply carrying on from the tradition of W. Eugene Smith in other ways. There is so much to do, and what might be called the “loss” of this photograph can give us courage to know that we have a great task before us.