Photo show spans Minamata woes

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Some 60 pictures by a freelance photographer currently on display at a gallery in central Tokyo show glimpses of the half-century history of Minamata disease victims.

Since his first visit to Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1960 as a rookie photographer just out of college, Shisei Kuwabara has pressed the shutter button around 30,000 times to record the lives of the people with the mercury-poisoning disease and their families.

The 60 photos have been chosen from the vast collection Kuwabara, now 77, took from 1960 to 2013.

The exhibition at the Nikon Salon in the Ginza district comes after the Minamata Convention on Mercury to regulate the use and trade of mercury was adopted at an international conference in Kumamoto last month.

The treaty is named after the city of Minamata, where mercury-tainted wastewater discharged by chemical-maker Chisso Corp. into Minamata Bay affected marine products and those who ate them.

“While the conclusion of the mercury treaty marked a milestone, the tragedy involving Minamata disease will continue as long as the sufferers are alive,” Kuwabara said.

He said he intends mainly to present some aspects of the lives of Minamata disease victims and their families in the exhibit.

One photo shows a congenital patient in festive dress being held in the arms of her father to celebrate her attainment of womanhood in January 1977, and in another she is surrounded by her family and relatives on her Coming-of-Age Day.

While she passed away 324 days later, her mother said, “This is my treasure girl, as she sucked mercury from inside my body. Thanks to her, her little sisters and brothers are fine and I have only mild symptoms (of Minamata disease).”

In a photo taken in October 1960, Kuwabara depicts a 68-year-old victim, who was a fisherman, surrounded by his three grandchildren in his hospital room.

The kids are eating his hospital meal, with the caption noting, “Hospital food with rice is a big meal for fishermen’s households, which suffer sluggish fish sales.”

The fisherman died in 1971 after being confined to his hospital bed for 12 years without returning home.

“I have not been involved in any support activities for the victims. I have just taken photos to record (the Minamata tragedy),” Kuwabara said. “But the photos will remain even after the victims die, and represent their voices.”

While only around 3,000 people have been officially certified as Minamata disease victims so far, more than 60,000 people have applied for the government’s latest redress program for unrecognized sufferers, indicating that a complete resolution of the issue is still far away.

The admission-free exhibition runs until Nov. 19 in Tokyo and will move on to the Nikon Salon in Osaka from Dec. 5 to 11.

Aside from the exhibition, Kuwabara published a photo collection recently.

“The Minamata Disaster” contains 120 photos, and each caption and the afterword by Kuwabara as well as the chronological table on the Minamata issue are translated into English “to make it available for people overseas,” he said. The 184-page book, published by Fujiwara-Shoten Co., is priced at ¥3,990.