The Cause

© W. Eugene Smith
© W. Eugene Smith

Passion for a cause. There was arguably no one more passionate about the storiess he worked on than the great W. Eugene Smith. Mr. Smith did some of the best known photo essays for Life magazine: Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, and Spanish Village.

Large_H1000xW950Later in his career, along with his wife, Aileen, the Smiths moved to southern Japan to the village of Minamata to document the carnage caused by mercury poisoning of the water supply by the Chisso Corporation’s dumping of industrial waste into the bay. For three years, they documented Minamata for their book of the same name. The Smiths’ photographs and words personalize the story and give a detailed account of the toll the tainted food chain had on the people there, including severe health problems and birth defects. The book includes one of Eugene Smith’s greatest photos, “Tomoko Uemura In Her Bath”, below.

w. eugen smith 2

Documentarians like Donna Ferrato, who produced the most comprehensive photographic coverage on domestic violence in her book, Living with the Enemy, which was eight years in the making, or Eugene Richards, whose raw reportage of a Denver hospital in The Knife and Gun Club: Scenes from an Emergency Room, are two examples of photographers identifying a cause or subject close to their hearts, and putting in the effort until they were ready to share their final, brilliant result with the world.

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Nature photographer James Balog is a great example of someone who thinks big and outside the frame, who is not content to take an easy, traditional approach to his work. For his book, Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, he took hundreds of photos—many while rappelling from surrounding trees—and digitally merged them into composite images to capture the grandeur of his subjects. In his “Extreme Ice Survey” project, he uses time-lapse, stills, and video to record the melting of the earth’s glacial ice caused by global warming.


And in his remarkable book, Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (Abrams 1990), he wasn’t interested in the romantic imagery of wildlife in idyllic environments and golden light that say that all is good in the animal world. Instead, Balog’s vision of the project was new and original. He proposed to bring these animals into the studio, away from their usual habitat, and photograph them with sophisticated studio lighting usually reserved for fashion and advertising images. He had difficulty garnering support for his project until he made some images for people to understand his idea.


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