The world, his home

Different Strokes

The world, his home

He is, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, the world’s most widely viewed exponent of photography. Arguably, he has had more magazine pages and exhibitions than anyone else alive today. He is more than a photojournalist, says Ian Parker in The New Yorker, “much the way Bono is something more than a pop star.”

For all the achievements and accolades, Sebastião Salgado (born 1944), who handled a camera for the first time when he was in his late 20s, was actually trained to be an economist.

Son of a cattle rancher in Aimores, a town of 10,000 in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Salgado earned his master’s degree in economics from the University of Sao Paulo in 1968, and worked as an economist for the Ministry of Finance in São Paulo. Due to his leftist affiliations, the right-wing military junta seized his passport, forcing him and his wife, Lelia Deluiz Wanick, flee to Paris in 1969.

Salgado joined the International Coffee Organization as an economist and took on assignments in Africa. His wife loaned him a camera on one of his trips to Africa in 1971 and that probably became a decisive moment. In 1973, he abandoned his career as an economist and embraced photography completely.

Salgado worked with photo agencies like Sygma and Gamma in Paris. In 1979, he joined Magnum Photos, the celebrated international cooperative of photographers; he remained with Magnum for the next 15 years. In 1994, he founded his own agency —- Amazonas Images — with his wife.

Stark pictures

Acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest humanitarian and social photographers, Salgado has come to be known for his stark and striking black and white pictures which not only celebrate the dignified lives of socially and politically displaced, dispossessed and impoverished people, but also the most pristine vestiges of nature unspoiled by modern development.

During the last three decades, he has travelled to corners of over 100 countries on photographic assignments and projects. Thanks to his extraordinary ability to capture people and places, he is hailed as an icon of social conscience, ‘a kind of solo branch of the United Nations’.   

Photography, for Salgado, is universal language; it does not need translation; its collective memory is a mirror in which our society continually observes itself. He is under no illusion that his photographs would do anything, but he hopes to make a difference as part of a larger movement. For him, it is not true that the planet is lost, but “we must work hard to preserve it.”

Among the many ventures he has undertaken in his illustrious career was “Workers”; a seven-year project completed in 1992; it presented evocative images of labourers from 26 countries. Another long-term project running to six years, “Migrations”, was completed in 1999; it focused on the plight of migrants, refugees and other displaced people in 40 countries.

Besides touring exhibitions organised across many countries, Salgado is also known through his books. Autres Ameriques (Other Americas”) documenting the peasantry of Latin America, came out in 1984. This was followed by Sahel: l’homme en détresse (1986), which captured the starvation and death in the Sahel region of Africa. About 20,000 copies of the books were sold, and the proceeds were donated to a French humanitarian aid organisation. His other books that have caught world attention are Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993), Terra: The Struggle of the Landless (1997), Migrations and Portraits (2000), and Afrika (2007).

Understanding the subject

Salgado works on long-term projects and his patience is enormous; he is known to go and live with his subjects for weeks before the first picture is taken. “When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realises that they are giving the pictures to him.”

For him, there is no difference photographing a pelican or an albatross and photographing a human being or even a landscape. “You must pay attention to them, spend time with them, respect their territory.”

In 2004, Sebastião Salgado began a project named “Genesis”, aiming to present the striking ‘Sahara’ ©Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Imagesunblemished faces of nature and humanity. Writing in The Guardian (Be fruitful, and replenish the earth /11 September 2004), he explained: “I have named it Genesis because, as far as possible, I want to return to the beginning of our planet: to the air, water and fire that gave birth to life; to the animal species that have resisted domestication and are still ‘wild’; to the remote tribes whose ‘primitive’ way of life is largely untouched; and to surviving examples of the earliest forms of human settlement and organisation. This voyage represents a form of planetary anthropology. Yet it is also designed to propose that this uncontaminated world must be preserved and, where possible, be expanded so that development is not automatically commensurate with destruction.”

Salgado, who is a UNICEF Goodwill Amabassador and honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, has many admirers. According to renowned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “Salgado photographs people; casual photographers photograph phantoms.” Scholar-writer David Levi-Strauss observes that ‘like all politically effective images, the best of Salgado’s photographs work in the fissures, the wounds, of the social.’

Poet Michael Palmer notes that the subject of Salgado’s photojournalism is not in fact the visible but the invisible: what has been repressed and will not be spoken. “It appears always at the edge of the frame or in the uneasy negotiation among the space of origin, the framed space of the work, and the social space to which it has been removed, which is also a cultural space, of the aesthetic.”

On his part, Salgado does not claim to be a social photographer or a political activist. “People stuck that label on me... I am not a political militant, I’m a photographer and that’s all.”

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