Alternate names given for the photograph include: Tomoko in the Bath, Tomoko and Mother in the Bath and Tomoko is Bathed by her Mother.
W. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen Smith lived in Minamata from 1971 to 1973, with the specific aim of bringing Minamata disease to public attention. During those three years Smith took thousands of photographs, leading to the production of numerous magazine articles, exhibitions and a book. Smith realised that a single, striking photograph was required to become a symbol of Minamata disease. In Smith's own words, "It grew and grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Minamata was, finally, a picture of this woman [the mother], and the child, Tomoko. One day I simply said […] let us try to make that symbolic picture".
Tomoko's parents allowed Smith to photograph their daughter's body, in the hope that it might draw attention to the plight of similar families in Minamata and other pollution victims all over the world. Ryoko Uemura was keen for the photograph to portray her daughter in a sympathetic manner and actively collaborated with Smith to stage the perfect shot. Jim Hughes, (a biographer) said of Smith, "Although he wanted a photograph that would clearly show Tomoko's deformed body, Gene told me it was Ryoko Uemura, the mother, who suggested the bathing chamber". The photograph was finally taken on a chilly afternoon in December 1971, with Ryoko, Tomoko, Smith and his wife Aileen all cramped into the small bathing room.
The photograph was first published in the June 2 1972 edition of Life magazine as the centrepiece of a short Minamata photo essay. This was expanded into book form featuring the full series of photographs taken by Smith during his stay in Minamata. The issue of Minamata disease and the plights of the victims was brought to world-wide attention by this photo essay and book.
The striking nature of the photograph ensured that it became world famous very quickly. The Uemura family found themselves under a media spotlight. Tomoko's father, Yoshio Uemura said, "We were faced with an increasing number of interviews. Thinking that it would aid the struggle for the eradication of pollution, we agreed to interviews and photographs while the organizations that were working on our behalf used the photograph of Tomoko frequently". However the increased attention was not without its drawbacks. Rumors began to circulate in the Minamata community that the Uemuras were benefitting financially from the publicity. Some local people (who relied on the polluting Chisso Corporation for their livelihoods) were fiercely opposed to the Minamata disease victims' struggle for compensation. All these pressures added up significantly for the Uemura family. "I do not think," Yoshio Uemura stated, "that anybody outside our family can begin to imagine how unbearable the persistent rumors made our daily lives... Although she could not speak herself, I am sure that Tomoko felt that her family were worried for her".
Tomoko Uemura died in 1977 at the age of 21.
In 1997 a French television production company contacted the Uemura family, asking permission to use Smith's famous photograph in a documentary about the most important photographs of the 20th century, and to interview the family once again about Minamata disease and the photograph. However by this stage, 20 years after his daughter's death, Yoshio Uemura had changed his mind. He refused any interviews and disliked the idea of Tomoko's image being further exploited: "I wanted Tomoko to be laid to rest and this feeling was growing steadily", he said.
After W. Eugene Smith's death in 1978 the copyright of his Minamata photographs had been passed to his ex-wife Aileen Smith. Upon hearing the reaction of the Uemura family to the request of the TV company, she travelled to Minamata and met with them. She decided to return the copyright of the photograph to the family, so that they might have the right of decision regarding its use. Aileen Smith said, "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."