W. Eugene Smith’s photographs reflect his boyhood in the American heartland and his coming of age in the agony of World War II. His work, imbued with moral fervor, evinces a clear difference between good and evil, the individual’s ability to transcend his or her circumstances, the inherent goodness (even heroism) in people, the capacity and willingness of one person to help others (such as the healers in country doctor, nurse-midwife and Albert Schweitzer). In the photo essays which he did after World War II, he demonstrated a belief in the human spirit and the ability of humanity to rise above the immense destruction it had sown. Like the country which he came from and the magazine, LIFE, which hired him, Smith’s work was refreshingly direct, sometimes sentimental and often optimistic.
The credos of those who have been awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography are generally more sober, less drawn to epiphany. Few seem to agree with Smith that the meek shall inherit the earth; none seem capable of taking an image as sweetly, optimistically romantic as “The Walk to Paradise Garden.” Whether in a hospital emergency room, or mired in the conflicts of Belfast or Palermo, hardly any of the individuals depicted by the Grant recipients seem to be able to provide profound healing and resolution. Problems seem more endemic, more difficult to change…
The intention of this Grant has never been to find photographers who replicate Smith’s particular preoccupations or his photographic style. It has been, and continues to be, to find worthy recipients who in their own way will explore and report upon aspects of the contemporary world that are of significant importance. The Grant is given to allow photographers to escape from the increasingly formulaic demands of the mass media. The photography, as it should, will evolve.
By Fred Ritchin