This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – a reminder that entries are open for the Head On Photo Awards 2021 with more than $70,000 in prizes. Entries close 31 May. And from the archives, an interview with Takeshi Ishikawa who assisted Eugene Smith on his Minamata project. In 2013 Ishikawa was in Perpignan, France to launch his book “Minamata Note 1972-2012” at that year’s Visa pour l’Image.
“Minamata Note 1972-2012”
Takeshi Ishikawa in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor
A chance meeting with photographer Eugene Smith on the streets of Tokyo in 1972 led Takeshi Ishikawa on a journey he could not have envisaged. More than four decades after Smith “kidnapped” Ishikawa on a train bound for Minamata, the project that epitomised Smith’s photojournalistic ideology has also directed Ishikawa’s path and led to his own book, “Minamata Note 1972-2012”.
Minamata is known for the disease named after this Japanese fishing village. For 37 years the Chisso Corporation had dumped contaminated wastewater into Minamata Bay poisoning the water with high doses of methylmercury. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the horrific neurological illnesses and birth defects caused by the poisoning were given a name; Minamata Disease. And it was Eugene Smith’s photographic documentation of those affected that shocked the world.
Ishikawa tells me that as a young photographer just starting out he couldn’t believe his luck when he ran into Smith, who was out shopping with his wife Aileen, in Takeshi’s neighbourhood in Tokyo.
“I said, are you Eugene Smith? I told him I’d seen his exhibition, and thought it was very great. Then I asked, but why are you still here now your exhibition has finished? He told me he wanted to shoot in Minamata. Of course I knew about Minamata, but at that time I wasn’t that interested, in some ways it was old news”.
They chatted for a while and Ishikawa told Smith he’d recently started his own freelance photography business. “Then he invited me to his apartment, which was close by, and I wondered why he was asking me, a stranger?” Curious Ishikawa followed the pair back to the apartment, which had been lent to Smith by a sponsor.
“There were packing boxes all over the place,” Ishikawa says, and for the next ten days he assisted Smith and Aileen in getting ready to go to Minamata. “When they left, I told Gene, if you need help when you get back to Tokyo call me.”
Within two weeks Smith was back in Tokyo. He enlisted Ishikawa’s help once again, this time to print contact sheets. “After only two weeks Gene already had many rolls of film. He made the developer himself, but needed me to print for him”. With limited space and funds, Ishikawa created a makeshift darkroom and printed long into the night returning to his home only for sleep, before starting again.
After a grueling workload there was respite in sight; Smith and Aileen were heading to Minamata again. Ishikawa says Smith had asked him numerous times to come with them, but Ishikawa was acutely aware that he wouldn’t be able to earn a living in Minamata, and that Smith had no money.
“I took them to the station and I’m saying goodbye to Gene and the train is starting to move and he’s holding me.” He pauses to show me how Smith had grabbed him. “And I’m like no, no, I must go. But he held on to me and after 17 hours we arrived in Minamata.” He laughs at what is now a fond memory, but at the time Smith’s actions were somewhat disconcerting for the 21 year old.
Resigned to his fate, he rationalized it was only for three months and threw himself into the adventure. “We arrived in Minamata and I stayed in a house with Gene and Aileen, an old style Japanese house. There was only one mattress so on the first night we had to share, with Gene in the middle.” After all these years his embarrassment at this memory is apparent and he quickly adds that Smith bought another mattress the following day.
For the next three years Ishikawa worked with Smith on Minamata spending most of his time in the fishing village. There he printed hundreds of photographs in a darkroom hastily erected in the bathroom where using the toilet became an exercise in contortion, so cramped was the space. Money was tight too and while Smith sold images to LIFE, which helped to fund the continuation of the project, there were many lean periods when Ishikawa worked for room and board only.
“The first time I went to Minamata I didn’t shoot, I was the assistant, and I wasn’t that interested in the politics. But the next visit Gene gave me a handful of rolls of film and told me to shoot. He encouraged me to photograph patients on my own, he was insistent. So when I had time I started to take photographs.”
During that time Ishikawa amassed a collection of images, but after Smith returned to the US, he didn’t pursue the story on his own. Rather, in the years following Ishikawa found himself searching for his own stories, but it wasn’t until he visited India that he found what he was looking for in the marginalised transgender communities of that country’s cities.
“Through my work with the transgender communities in India, the Hijra, I’ve explored universal themes of gender and sexuality,” he says of his work that has spanned decades and resulted in wide acclaim. “The Hijra are the third gender of India. Just as men and women play their roles in society, Hijras, who are neither men nor women, belong to a special category of gender, and fulfil a socio-cultural role that is only reserved for them.”
He says revisiting his photographs from Minamata was never on the agenda, but in 2008 Ishikawa saw a retrospective of Smith’s work and it reignited his interest in the topic. “Seeing this exhibition made me realise I wanted to see Minamata again. When I was working as Gene’s assistant I was young, and didn’t realise at the time that this was my project also”. He went back to Minamata and reconnected with a patient he had met all those years ago. From there it didn’t take long to consolidate his idea to photograph the same people and places 30 years on. “And that’s what my book, Minamata Note, is about. This is Minamata now”.
Minamata was Smith’s last photo essay, and one that nearly killed him after men employed by Chisso savagely beat him leaving him with impaired vision in one eye and a litany of ailments. But Smith was determined to tell the story, one that Ishikawa says isn’t over.
While Minamata Note is written in Japanese, the images speak for themselves and Minamata Note is both documentary and personal in its style. In the years that Ishikawa shared the Smiths’ lives he also took photographs of the pair working together, as well as Smith with many of the victims and the book reveals poignant, often evocative scenes that have never been published.
Minamata Note is available here.