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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012
Life with Minamata disease in photos
Takeshi Ishikawa revisits victims he documented 40 years ago
By KEIJI HIRANO
Tokyo-based freelance photographer Takeshi Ishikawa visited Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 2008 to reunite with congenital Minamata disease patients whose images he had first captured almost 40 years earlier.
Since then, he has repeatedly traveled to the small coastal city to document the lives of victims, who are growing older and increasingly impaired.
His journeys have been preserved in a photo collection titled "Minamata Note 1971-2012."
Ishikawa initially visited Minamata in 1971 as an assistant to the prominent photographer W. Eugene Smith, who was to photograph people with the disease to publicize the tragedy to the world. Ishikawa lived there for around three years with Smith and his wife.
"I just graduated from a photographers' school and happened to encounter Eugene on a Tokyo street shortly after I had enjoyed his photo exhibition," Ishikawa said. "As a rookie photographer, I asked Eugene if there were anything I could do for him, and I ended up accompanying the couple to Minamata."
Minamata disease, caused by mercury-laced water dumped into the ocean by chemical maker Chisso Corp., is a neurological disorder that brings about sensory and motor disorders or visual impairment as well as numbness in limbs.
Images of severely convulsing patients and children affected by mercury physically and mentally sent shock waves throughout the country amid the postwar economic boom.
While only 2,973 people were officially certified as Minamata disease patients as of October, more than 65,000 people applied for the government's latest redress program for unrecognized victims, indicating the damage could be far worse than the government is willing to acknowledge.
While Smith rigorously visited homes of congenital patients, who were affected by the mercury in their mothers' wombs, he sometimes put aside his camera and just shook hands with them, according to Ishikawa.
"It was as if Eugene tried to communicate with them, although he did not even speak Japanese, so he could understand their feelings and translate them into his pictures," he said. "I believe he wanted to convey the voices of their souls through his photos, even if some of them could not speak up by themselves."
Encouraged by Smith, Ishikawa eventually started shooting photos of Minamata disease sufferers and their families himself.
"Eugene told me to snap my own shutter and face the Minamata issue through my own photos," he said. "It was a precious lesson Eugene gave to me."
Ishikawa used around 150 rolls of film during his stay in Minamata, but he sealed away the results until the publication of the latest photo book "as I thought Minamata was Eugene's field, not mine."
Smith returned to the United States after completing his project in Minamata in 1974 and died in 1978 at age 59 after leaving a world-famous photo collection, "Minamata," which includes several photos taken by his wife, Aileen Mioko Smith.
Ishikawa, for his part, gradually focused mainly on local customs in Asian countries, traveling recently along the Ganges River for shoots.
But when he attended the 30th anniversary ceremony of Smith's death in 2008 in Kyoto, "I felt an irresistible desire to meet again with those I shot in Minamata."
Ishikawa, now 62, had initially planned to revisit Minamata when he reached the age that Smith arrived there.
"I was in my early 20s and Eugene was in around his mid-50s when we worked together, and I thought I could understand how he had observed and what he had thought of Minamata if I visited there again once I had became a little more mature."
During his latest trips, Ishikawa tried whenever possible to take photos of the congenital patients at sites similar to those where they had stood in his photographs 40 years ago.
By unsealing his past photos and displaying them with the newer ones side by side, he aimed to present the past and the present in his photo book.
One of the photos, for example, shows a patient in his 50s confined to a wheelchair, whereas he could stand and walk by himself in the early 1970s. The caption reads, "His mother is now in her 80s, and it has almost reached the limit of her capability to take care of him at home.
"The symptoms of the congenital patients are progressing in accordance with their aging, and the whole picture of Minamata disease, such as the exact number of the sufferers, still remains unknown," Ishikawa said. "We cannot yet say the Minamata issue has been settled."
Aileen Mioko Smith, who now lives in Kyoto, welcomed the publication of Ishikawa's photo book.
"Mr. Ishikawa and I have known the patients since they were teenagers, and their latest photos present their natural faces as they stood in front of an old friend.
"Mr. Ishikawa, Eugene and I could take these pictures as we settled down in Minamata and came face to face with local people," she said.
The 175-page photo collection is published by Chikura Publishing Co. in Tokyo. The price is ¥4,725 including tax. Ishikawa said he is considering publishing an English version.