Excerpt from “The Spectre of Hope” a new film about the photography of Sebastiao Salgado, with John Berger
The Spectre of Hope Trailer:
Speaking at the UCLA Hammer Museum, L.A., 2009:
Speaking at UC Berkeley School of Journalism, 2005:
From the New York Times: PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful?
Published: July 13, 2001
SENTIMENTAL voyeurism” is the latest jab, this one from Jean-François Chevrier, a French art professor, in Le Monde. Clearly it’s tough being the world’s most famous photojournalist.
Even people who sympathize with what Sebastião Salgado does — and what sane person would not? — complain that his pictures are too beautiful, which is not something you might normally complain about when you look at photographs, especially unforgettable ones.
But the key word is ”normally,” the 56-year-old Brazilian-born Mr. Salgado not being a normal photographer. He is a superstar in the Robert Capa, Chim and Henri Cartier-Bresson tradition, and what he photographs is not what most of his audience, or at least most of the audience for his latest exhibition at the International Center of Photography in Midtown Manhattan, would regard as normal life.
One hopes not, anyway. These pictures come from his latest book, ”Migrations.” It is the product of seven years of travel to more than 35 countries (including Afghanistan, Rwanda, the Balkan nations and pretty much every other troubled and terrible spot you can think of), documenting what he calls ”the reorganization of the human family” that has come about partly through the shift from ”majority rural to majority urban.”
Having previously borne witness to widespread starvation in Africa and chronicled manual labor all over the world, Mr. Salgado here turns his immense energies to the millions of refugees, exiles, orphans, landless peasants, homeless families, boat people, internees and others who today endure incredible hardships to escape even more extreme circumstances.
This is a sprawling, frequently gruesome story — the scale and the gravity of it should speak for themselves — and if the suffering doesn’t prompt guilt, indifference to it will. That’s how emotional blackmail and effective moral photojournalism work. Mr. Salgado practices both as well as anyone does these days.
The greater the suffering, the grander his artistic ambition, naturally. His is the paradoxical situation of being a celebrated artist of forgotten people, which is a starting point for much of the carping.
But let’s dispense with petty criticisms first. The show, like the book, includes too many photographs that aren’t up to his best. Even great journalists need editors. Mr. Salgado’s wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, oversaw the exhibition. It has a superfluous, melodramatic video of pictures accompanied by music. The photographs are accompanied by explanatory captions that are sometimes vague and not helpful. There is no sense of independent oversight.
Resistance to the work, which after all exists ostensibly to gain recognition for overlooked masses of destitute people, is fueled by signs of vanity. It is also fueled by the cult of appreciation around Mr. Salgado, which has tended to equate doubt about the photographs with lack of sympathy for their subjects, if simply because of the sanctimony of its praise for him. It’s a tricky business to get people to look at other people they may have spent a great deal of time trying, consciously or otherwise, not to notice.
That said, the good photographs are so stupendously gorgeous that they make you forget everything else while you are looking at them. They bespeak uncanny formal intuition, a ready repertory of apt allusions to art history and peerless timing (and some luck maybe, too, which all great photojournalists have). This applies whether the image is a panoramic blur of jostling commuters at a Bombay railroad station, wherein a visual cliché of human overpopulation and modern travel is transformed into a minor miracle of geometric and textural subtlety; or the fearful, glassy-eyed glare of three refugee babies captured through a slit between rough blankets; or the silent labor of people dragging a mastless skiff over glossy sand under leaden skies, an image screaming with Christian symbolism like so many of Mr. Salgado’s pictures. You would have to be blind or dead-hearted or immune to aesthetic pleasure not to be at least occasionally bowled over by such improbable skill.
But by now it should go without saying that Mr. Salgado is astonishing. Still at issue are what you might call the mechanics of his astonishment: the beauty part. ”Exploitation of compassion” is another phrase from the professor in Le Monde. Should pictures of suffering ever be so beautiful?
Mr. Salgado’s supporters have always responded that the beauty of the photographs lends dignity to the people in them, which is a good point, but the question demands a more elaborate answer.
It was one thing to try to wake humanity up to suffering in the world via photographs from the early years of the last century through the golden age of photojournalism in the 1940’s and 50’s, when most people saw distant places and learned of faraway disasters through photographs, but it is another thing to try to do so now, when the number of images that flash across television and computer screens diminishes the value of any single image you may see. Photographers deal with this problem differently, but above all by struggling to make beautiful pictures: what causes any image to stick in the mind, aside from shock content, whose impact tends to be brief, are qualities like pictorial integrity and compositional originality, which are fancy terms for beauty. If your subject happens to be the dislocation of people and their suffering, then those people and that suffering become your compositional devices.
Beauty takes many guises. A decade ago, apropos of another show by Mr. Salgado at the center, Ingrid Sischy in The New Yorker held up Walker Evans as a preferable alternative, Mr. Salgado’s work faring less well because of ”the unrelenting application of the lyric and the didactic to his subjects,” while Evans was appealingly mordant and clinical. It’s an interesting point. Evans’s iconic tenant farmers are memorable because they do short-circuit pity by cutting out all charm and anecdote. We stare level-eyed at people who squint back at us, refusing, as Lionel Trilling once put it about Evans’s famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, ”to be an object of your ‘social consciousness.’ ” He added, ”She refuses to be an object at all.”
But this neutrality rubs two ways. For another exhibition this year, the center unearthed anonymous photographs of impoverished Southerners made in the 1930’s by eugenicists who wanted to prove the biological inferiority of the poor, and the pictures looked shockingly similar in format and tone to Evans’s.
As always with photographs, what we see in them is what we want to see, unless the photographer, like Mr. Salgado, is explicitly didactic. Evans’s pictures, lean, laconic and deadpan, are great works of ambiguous art, their ambiguity being a sign of respectful communication, one of great art’s basic traits. Evans solved the beauty problem by maintaining a fascinating indifference toward his subjects. Mr. Salgado, a concerned journalist, produces reportage and propaganda, an honorable ambition but different from Evans’s, which doesn’t preclude Mr. Salgado’s making great art (see Goya and David) but doesn’t strictly require it, either.
Of course his photographs are exploitative. Most good photojournalism is. As Cartier-Bresson once said: ”There is something appalling about photographing people. It is certainly some form of violation. So if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it.” Mr. Salgado chooses to sentimentalize his subjects — all those beautiful children staring back at us and smiling despite their horrific conditions — to avoid seeming barbaric and to demonstrate his sensitivity toward them. He is conveying some essential faith in humanity, too; in that respect, his work is sentimental voyeurism and unabashedly manipulative (but not hectoring, which is important). And that is why people respond so strongly to it, for better and worse.
We respond not only because of the voyeurism and the manipulation but, again, because of its formal beauty. Two thousand years of Christian art is based on the premise that of course suffering can be beautiful. Mr. Salgado’s allusions to Western art, to the point of their becoming a tic in his work, use art history to provide bona fides, both formal and moral. Moroccan refugees huddling in a flimsy motorboat on rough seas, caught in the spotlight from a Spanish helicopter intercepting them while trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, immediately brings to mind Delacroix’s ”Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee.” Vietnamese peasants, in silhouette against a vast landscape, mimic Millet’s ”Gleaners,” which has its own biblical pedigree.
”Beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal,” Ms. Sischy argued years ago. If that were true, then the whole history of Christian art would be a practical failure. But she is on to something.
Mr. Salgado’s work is ultimately separated from its art-historical references by its specificity: these are not ancient martyrs, apostles and saints but modern-day fellow world citizens — real, specific people, whom Mr. Salgado endeavors to make into generalized saints and apostles, except that we know they are not. Maybe the most affecting photograph in the whole show is a straight, comparatively simple image of abandoned babies on a rooftop in Brazil, one of them in a high chair, with no adults, no one else, in sight. The picture is affecting precisely because we know the babies are there on the roof, and we urgently want to learn how they got there, what’s being done for them and who they are.
(”May the idea never enter God’s sublime head to journey one day to this land to see for himself whether those people who survive here on the brink between life and death are satisfactorily serving out the punishment that at the beginning of the world he handed out to the father and mother of us all,” José Saramago, the great Portuguese novelist, wrote about Brazil in the introduction to a different book of Mr. Salgado’s photographs, conveying an irony, we might note, that Mr. Salgado rarely uses.)
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, there is a popular display of photographs of Jews killed by the Nazis, the pictures rising up the walls of a room shaped like a smokestack. It’s very theatrical. Nobody in the photographs is identified. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, many of the photographs are accompanied by names. It’s a small difference, but crucial. Names make people into individuals.
Some of the most beautiful, loving photographs in Mr. Salgado’s show are portraits of children he took almost casually, because the children would gather around to watch him work. They volunteered to have their pictures shot in exchange for ”allowing the visitor to work in peace,” explains the wall text accompanying a group of these photographs. ”We can only guess what they are feeling,” the text continues. ”Yet here at least we see them as they chose to be seen. In the universe of the photograph, they stand alone. And perhaps for the first time in their young lives, they are able to say, ‘I am.’ ”
Perhaps. Still, it would be nice if Mr. Salgado had told us their names.
New York Times: Sebastião Salgado
May 28, 2009
By Jori Finkel
Sebastião Salgado, the celebrated Brazilian photojournalist, is famous for putting a human face on economic and political oppression in developing countries.
In his epic, ecological work in progress “Genesis,” he is photographing the most pristine vestiges of nature he can find, piecing together a visual story about the effects of modern development on the environment. Rather than document the effects of, say, pollution or global warming directly, he is photographing natural subjects that he believes have somehow “escaped or recovered from” such changes: landscapes, seascapes, animals and indigenous tribes that represent an earlier, purer — “pristine” is a favorite word — state of nature. The eight-year project is now more than half completed.
Some of his new work appears in his show “Africa,” through Sept. 30, at the Peter Fetterman gallery in Santa Monica.
“Genesis” is a grand, romantic back-to-nature project, combining elements of both the literary pastoral and the sublime. Mr. Salgado, born in 1944, also describes it as a return to childhood, as he was raised on a farm in the Rio Doce Valley of southeastern Brazil — then about 60 percent rain forest — that suffered from terrible erosion and deforestation. Years later, in 1998, he and his wife, Lélia, founded the Instituto Terra on 1,500 acres of this land to undertake an ambitious reforestation project.
His wife, who also designs his books and exhibitions, is the institute’s president; he is vice president and the institute’s most famous spokesman. Or, as Ian Parker wrote in The New Yorker, Mr. Salgado is more than a photojournalist, “much the way Bono is something more than a pop star.” Paris is home along with Vitória, Brazil.
In short, while the Instituto Terra is the locally rooted arm of his environmental activism, “Genesis” is its globally minded, photo-driven counterpart. Since undertaking the series in 2004, he has visited some 20 different sites across 5 continents.
His earlier projects were also driven by a sense of urgency. Before becoming a photographer he did doctoral work in agricultural economics at the University of Paris and served as an economist for the International Coffee Organization in London.
“Workers,” a seven-year project completed in 1992, featured images of laborers from 26 countries, including his acclaimed pictures of the Serra Pelada miners in Brazil. “Migrations,” a six-year project spanning some 40 countries that was completed in 1999, focused on migrants, refuges and other displaced populations that are financially and often physically vulnerable. (Both series became coffee-table books.)
A Getty Museum curator, Brett Abbott, who is including “Migrations” in his 2010 exhibition survey of narrative photojournalism, called this “epic approach” one of the Mr. Salgado’s hallmarks: “Of all the photographers I’m looking at, he’s probably taken on the biggest conceptual frameworks. He’s always looking at global problems.”
In this way “Genesis” represents less of a departure than it might at first seem. Even though he recently switched to a digital camera for large-format printing, his pictures have a consistent sensibility. He still generates contact sheets. He still likes to backlight his subjects, emphasizing — or romanticizing, his critics say — their forms. He still works in black and white. And his work still culminates in photo essays that, through a network of smaller stories, reveal something about an entire species. His fundamental subject is social systems, and now ecosystems.
“Looking Back at You” part 1 (1993):
“Looking Back at You” part 2 (1993):