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A Closer Look: W. Eugene Smith’s Photograph

BY Melissa Pittson, Curatorial Intern, Photography and Media Arts

W. Eugene Smith, American (1918–1978), Dying Infant Found by American Soldiers in Saipan, June 1944

Dying Infant Found by American Soldiers in Saipan, June 1944

Who?  The Marine holding the infant is US Marine Johnny Popham.

“Johnny Popham was at the top of the incline. I had yelled up to him, and asked what the hell do we do with this baby? I didn’t see how they could possibly save its eyesight, but it was alive. Johnny, who was a devout Catholic, said, “I think we have to leave it up to God’. I don’t know if it survived.”—Paul White

US Marine Johnny Popham is holding an infant. The baby in the photograph was found beneath a steep ravine, barely alive, eyes encrusted with maggots, scratches, and head dented to one side.

Hands trained for killing, gently worked the sod away from the small lopsided head and extricated the infant. The eyes were sockets of pus, covered with the clinging flies. The head was obviously mashed to one side in its softness, and the little body was covered with scratches—but it was alive, and though death was almost sure, we used precious time to carry it back to the Jeeps for medical care. Several said it would be more merciful to shoot in the head. A sergeant started to hand the baby to one of the Japanese women, but she shrank away so violently that it was taken to another Jeep”—W. Eugene Smith

The other Marine with cigarette in mouth: US Marine Paul White
“I am the one [at the bottom of the ravine] with the rifle, and a cigarette in my mouth,” White says of the picture. “The guy holding our child is one of our boys. The baby was passed to three others until it got to the top”—Paul White

SaipanWhere?  The battle took place on the island of Saipan (in the Mariana Islands) in Japan.

When?  June 15-July 9, 1944

What?  This photograph was part of a photographic series published in Life Magazine. Photographs in this series highlighted the fatigue of US Marines as well as the terror and trauma of vulnerable Japanese civilians. These photographs were accompanied with dramatic headlines such as “Eyewitness Tells of Island Fight”, “U.S. Heroism Beat Jap Stubbornness”, “War’s Terror Struck at the Innocent”, “Civilians Committed Mass Suicide”, and “The Toll of Victory was Heavy”.

LIFE Magazine, 1944.

LIFE Magazine, 1944.

This Life Magazine feature was a collaborative effort—written by Robert Sherrod and photographed by Peter Stackpole and W. Eugene Smith.

How?  This photograph was captured by W. Eugene Smith, a photojournalist known for his extreme and controversial representations of war, especially in the context of World War II.

“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends on the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought”—W. Eugene Smith


WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath is on view from June 29, 2013-September 29, 2013. This landmark exhibition revolutionizes our understanding of this momentous subject, immersing viewers in the experience of soldiers and civilians during wartime. Epic in scope and ambition, and featuring many of the most indelible photographs ever made, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY takes us from the home front to the battlefield and back again.

Photo Credit: 

  • W. Eugene Smith, American (1918–1978), Dying Infant Found by American Soldiers in Saipan, June 1944, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Will Michels in honor of Anne Wilkes Tucker. © Estate of W. Eugene Smith / Black Star