Sebastião Salgado’s Photographic Call to Arms

14 May

The Natural History Museum in London is currently showing a large collection of photographs by a man who is by any account one of the world’s greatest photographers–and one of my favourites.


The first photo of his I ever saw is probably his most famous: tens of thousands of men, covered with mud and straining under the weight of their tumplines, as they worked the Serra Pelada gold mine in Para, Brazil. It is an arresting, apocalyptic image that hardly seems real, yet that portrayed an undeniable reality of life for the poor of Brazil in the 1980s.  I once met a man who had worked Serra Pelada — some 100,000 worked there at its peak — who told me that what they were doing was going ever further down into the earth, filling sacks, then carrying them up to be upended into a sluice that captured its flakes and nuggets of gold. They were paid for every sack they brought up, depending on how much gold was extracted. In his case, it was enough to buy some land on a fertile island in the Tocantins River.

Yesterday I learned in a lecture that Salgado, who born in Aimorés in the state of Minas Gerais, actually first came to fame with a photo of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan while he worked for Magnum. But I know him better for all of the work that followed, like Migrations and Workers, as well as his vital support for the Landless Rural Workers Movement, its struggles and victories also portrayed in a book he published called Terra, or Land.

It was Terra, in fact, that caught the attention of his biographer, Parvati Nair, who delivered yesterday’s lecture, and who saw connections in it that evoked her home, India. She not only spoke about his working methods and personal history, including years in exile here in London during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but also about some interesting aspects of his personal life.

Salgado and his wife Lelia Wanick now live on the same farming estate where he grew up, and have been purchasing land to replant with trees. According to Ms. Nair, they have planted some two million trees, setting in motion the regeneration of hundreds of hectares of tropical forest and return of all kinds of wildlife.

A legacy as important as his photographic work? That’s a difficult question to answer. But in crossing the lines of art, environment, economics and modernity, Salgado’s opus stands out for the way it opens up vistas to a natural world both tremendous in its forms and extension yet under constant threat from human beings. In fact, the images of the few human beings who live in some of these vast and often inhospitable expanses are at times all but  indistinguishable from those of the trees and animals and even the extraordinary rock, ice and water formations that make his photographs such compelling works of art and documentation. So that now it are tumbling multitudes of penguins strewn across an apocalyptic rock face rather than people that stop us and make us wonder what we are seeing.

salgado lizard

The exhibit of photographs at the Natural History Museum  takes us throughout a world that remains untouched, in large part because these spaces are so remote, and constitute, in Salgado’s own words, “a call to arms for us to preserve what we have.”

For me, his devotion to chasing unforgettable images that make us re-think both our natural world and human society, on the one hand, and his quiet support for people engaged in the struggle for a more equitable and environmentally sustainable social order, on the other, are undistinguishable. They feed into each other and make Salgado a photographer — and a person —  truly unique and admirable. In fact, it was the experience of seeing the landscape around Aimorés come back to life that inspired Salgado to begin working on Genesis.

Check out Salgado’s official website, here, and Ms. Nair’s book, A Different Light: the Photography of Sebastião Salgado, here.


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