The photography of Sebastião Salgado : from the heart of darkness to the first day of creation

"I had seen so much violence and barbarism, especially in Rwanda, that I felt sick, so I gave up photography."

2 years ago | SoTA Magazine

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Civil wars, famines, exoduses and the systematic violation of human rights are the humanitarian catastrophes that continue to occur in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and Sebastião Salgado (1944) has witnessed them since 1973. Thanks to his photography we learn about the violence, human misery and despair produced by ideologies, totalitarian governments, religious extremism, intolerance and learned beliefs, but we also observe in them the song of life, beauty and the human dignity that this Franco-Brazilian photographer has captured in time for our contemplation.

A graduate of the University of Sao Paulo and Vanderbilt University in the United States, with a master’s degree and a doctorate in economics in Paris, in 1973 he renounced the corporate privileges that augured a bright future in London, to devote himself fully to photography. His passion for the image, his intuition to capture the crucial moment and his interesting way of framing the image through the viewfinder of the camera, led him to join the Magnum Photos agency in Paris. Why a person like Salgado was attracted to leave a high corporate position and choose a profession of risk and uncertain future? We can find the answer in what Henri Cartier-Bresson said about the agency: “Magnum is a community of thought, it is a shared human quality, it is curiosity and respect for what is happening in the world and the desire to visually transcribe it “.

At the end of the seventies, one of his first jobs was to cover the mission of Doctors Without Borders in Laos, an organization that provided assistance to mountaineers harassed by Vietnam, publishing his first book Les Hmongs (1982). From there, he was hired to cover humanitarian missions in the Sahel desert, in North Africa, which led him to publish Sahel: l’Homme en Détresse (1986). Later on, he is in charge of other missions for which he visited 35 countries, recording human migrations in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, among others. When in 1991, Saddam Hussein gave the order to burn down all the oil wells of Kuwait in the withdrawal of the Iraqi army, Salgado was present to photograph the hell.

In 1992, he photographed the escape through the Rwandan forests of a contingent of 250,000 farmers, with only 40,000 of them surviving the massacres and starvation. This balanced man, of great determination, after photographing scenes of genocide perpetrated by the Hutu government of Rwanda, which massacred more than a million Tutsi peasants in 1994, confessed to his family and friends that he lost faith in humanity, feeling that the dignity of life was worthless and was being demolished again and again, everywhere: “I had seen so much violence and barbarism, especially in Rwanda, that I felt sick, so I gave up photography.” In order to recover his spirit, he decided to return to Brazil, to Minas Gerais, with the idea of ​​rebuilding the farm where he was born, and it was not until the year 2000 that, in the book Éxodos, he compiled the images that narrate the humanitarian disaster caused by the forced migrations that he registered in various countries and that caused him such depression.

In 1998, when he heard that the largest open-pit gold mine in the world was taking place in the Serra Pelada gold mine in the state of Pará, in northeast Brazil, he decided to take up his cameras again. Once on the site, he captured horrifying images of the human and ecological disaster caused by more than 100,000 garimpeiros. These photographs are poured into the book La mina de oro de Serra Pelada (1999). Thanks to this report, the world learned of the magnitude of the devastation of the Amazon rainforest, and the voracity of the companies and mining organizations allowed by the corrupt governments of the countries that share the Amazon basin. From there, he left to the northeast of the country and ended up traveling all over South America, photographing the geography and its inhabitants, images that he collects in another book entitled Other Americas (1999). Salgado has always affirmed that photography is his way of life.

In 2004, he declared in an interview to Sophie Rahal: “Photography is memory, it is linked to history. All photographers have told the history of humanity since the beginning of the 20th century until now. they can modify society in no way, but they certainly sensitize some people, but they do not change them … “(Telerama, 12.06.2017) In those days he made the difficult decision of leaving social photography, which he had done throughout his life, in order to dedicate himself to photograph nature. This decision led him to the project Genesis (2013), a series composed of the most exalted images of homage to the planet. Salgado has said that his idea is to demonstrate that a large part of the planet is still on the first day of creation, so we still have the opportunity to preserve it. Through this change of attitude towards life, the photographer reinvented himself, and with his wife Leila, they started the Terra project, with the idea of ​​reforesting part of the jungle in the Amazon, having planted more than two millions of trees.

During the second week of December, I attended his exhibition Declaración, by Sebastião Salgado in the Museum of Man (Musée de l’homme) in Paris. The curator of the exhibition, Lélia Wanick Salgado, chose 30 large-format photographs to illustrate the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed in this same building in 1948 and which celebrated 70 years of existence during the month of December. With moving images that call for reflection, the photographer illustrates the right of asylum, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and religion, the right to work, the right to education and culture, among other photographies that narrate the violations of these, taken during his 40-year career in twenty countries: Afghanistan, Angola, Algeria, Bosnia, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, the Philippines, Rwanda, Somalia , Sudan and Tanzania. Images that embody the need for us to defend every day the rights enshrined in this declaration. In one of the walls it reads: “I want my photos to inform, provoke the debate”.

His photographies speak of the tragedy that has happened to people who overnight had to leave their homes and flee to other countries to save their lives and preserve their dignity. They are individual and collective tragedies that continue to happen in many countries at this precise moment. Precisely, on the relationship established between the observer of these images and the subject or situation represented in them, the photographer stands as a spokesman for that tribulation, because his images have the strength to tell us raw realities here and there . In any of the photos, the subject shows a moment of his condition before the camera and we, those who observe the images, so we give the photographer the right to be our spokesperson, to help us reflect, to understand better, to communicate the reality of that individual and his circumstances. Hence the ethical demands of the photographer