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Sebastiao Salgado’s Visionary Light

The Brazilian documentary photographer looks back on his career

Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado

JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images

Not since W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson has there been a photo-essayist of the magnitude of Sebastião Salgado. The forty-seven-year-old Brazilian, an economist turned journalist, is renowned for his dramatic and disturbing pictures. His subjects have included famine victims in the African Sahel; tens of thousands of half-nude, mud-covered gold miners hauling bags of dirt up rickety ladders in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines; peasants living in secluded villages in Central and South America; manual laborers (coal miners, sugar-cane cutters, metallurgical workers) in all parts of the world; and recently, the crews attempting to extinguish the conflagrations in the Kuwaiti oil fields. It is not that these people have never been the subjects of photography before but rather that they have rarely been illuminated with such extraordinary depth, devotion and cathartic power.

In this country, Salgado first gained prominence with his widely published photos of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Covering Reagan’s first 100 days as president for the New York Times Magazine, the photographer “had a feeling” he should step outside the Washington Hilton Hotel for a moment. “Things were happening very fast around me,” he said, “but I was shooting in slow motion. I made seventy-six pictures in one and a half minutes. I was in another speed than what was going on in front of me.”

Associated with Magnum Photos since 1979, Salgado has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, the King of Spain Award and two Infinity Awards for Photojournalism from the International Center of Photography. It is only within the past year, however, that Salgado has had his first major retrospective, which is currently traveling throughout the U.S.; it can be seen through December 15th at the Museum of Photographic Arts, in San Diego, and then at the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, D.C., from January 16th to March 22nd. (The magnificent 154-page catalog for this exhibition, titled An Uncertain Grace, was recently published by Aperture.)

Salgado lives in Paris with his wife of twenty-four years, the architect Lélia Deluiz Wanick, and their two sons. Their loftlike apartment, which Lélia designed, is located in a seventeenth-century building in a neighborhood largely populated by Arab and African immigrants.

Having just spent seventeen hours a day for five days printing the photographs he recently took in Kuwait, a weary but unbowed Salgado greeted me at his door on the afternoon of May 10th. A fair-haired, blue-eyed man with a handlebar mustache, wearing faded jeans and a vest over a cotton shirt, he sat me down in the kitchen. Over a couple of beers, he conversed in impassioned, slightly broken English (his fourth language after Portuguese, Spanish and French), revealing the social commitment and spirituality that inform his work. “You take pictures,” he said, “because it’s your life.”

When did you take your first photographs?
In 1970, when I was twenty-six years old.

What about when you were a kid?
I never had a camera when I was young because I lived in a small town in central Brazil called Aimorés that was really very far away from everything. There wasn’t even a TV there. Then one day I remember my sister’s husband, who was a dentist, coming back to the town with a camera. But the pictures he took were hard to develop. So after a while he stopped taking them. Later, when I was twenty and studying economics in the city of Vitória —– where I met my wife, Lélia —– a lot of our friends were doing photography. But it wasn’t one of my interests. And that was true until I came to Paris in 1970.

I heard that your wife gave you your first camera.
She’s an architect, and that year she bought a camera, an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic 2 —– I’ll never forget it —– to do architectural photography. Then one day, looking inside that camera, I discovered the world!

What were your first shots?
In July of 1970, Lélia and I went on holidays in the Haute-Savoie region of France. I bought some color film and took pictures of Lélia and some of the local people. It was fantastic!

I don’t know if the photos were any good, but taking them gave me so much pleasure. I was so happy that when we returned to Paris I bought a small enlarger —– a Durst Laborator 1000 that I still use today –— made a darkroom and began to develop prints for fellow students. This enabled me to buy more film and more lenses. And I became psyched on photography. It was a kind of invasion.

An invasion?
In the sense that about two years later I got my wish to put aside my economic studies and become a professional photographer.

Do you still have your first camera?
In April of 1971 I was in Holland, and there that camera was stolen. It was such a nice camera —– the only one I ever lost —– a dream that entered my life and then left. So Lélia and I sold a lot of our belongings and bought a Nikon F, which was expensive in those days. But it was a necessity. The camera had become part of my life.

One biographical note about you states that rather than writing economic reports “from the remove of a social scientist,” you preferred “to photograph the actual people [you] met.” Yet it’s a commonplace that photography “removes” or “detaches” the photographer from his subject, such that one often hears the phrase “the photographer as super-tourist.”
There is, in fact, a way of photographing in that manner. If you go to Kuwait —– as I did this past April –— just in order to take some snaps of what you know will be the wells burning or some guys sweating or the military patrolling … well, you’ll find that “photograph phenomenon” in front of you. So you try to get the best light and the best composition —– you’re a smart guy –— and when you imagine that the phenomenon is at its highest point, you take your picture. Or else you might concentrate on the smaller elements of the phenomenon, and each time something happens you go tack, one picture, tack, another picture, and so on. And in that way you get what you’ve been looking for.

But there’s an entirely different way of working. And in that way you are not smart, you don’t have preconceptions about the life in front of you. What you know is simply automatic –— you have a camera that’s part of your hands, part of your eyes. And then you go inside without judging anything. You don’t come with your American or your Brazilian or whatever culture in order to presume –— “that’s good, that’s bad, that’s black, that’s white” –— you come because you must come, it’s your way of life. You’re there to see, hear, listen, understand, integrate.

Of course, you’re a photographer, and you take pictures. And you’ll probably arrive at the same point as the guy who takes things from the outside. But now you touch it from the inside. And then the photos have another reason, another meaning. Because in the end it’s not really the photographer who takes the pictures; it’s the persons in front of the camera who give the photos to you.

Let’s say a young person came to you and said that he or she wanted to be the kind of photographer that you’ve just described. What would you say?
I’d say that if you really believe you want to be a photographer —– and I’m speaking now, of course, of a documentary photographer, which is really a hard way of life –— and if you are capable of keeping your mind on this goal twenty-four hours a day, and if you can respect the people you photograph, and if you can see the nobility and dignity of your subjects, then your photographs will be fantastic. Because the technical side is peanuts. It’s merely a kind of variable that soon becomes a constant: Little by little you learn to control the light, the lenses, the camera –— it becomes automatic.

The problem is, rather, to find out whether you believe that photography is an instrument of communication between people. You need to spend a lot of time to learn and absorb a lot of things. And you have to be willing and able to travel alone. Because when you enter a place with a group –— even only two persons –— that’s a self-sufficient, self-protected entity. And the others don’t pay attention to you. But when you are by yourself, people speak to you, give you food. To be alone is to go inside.

It’s been said that “nothing human is alien.” Has there ever been a time, or times, when you have been unable or unwilling to snap the shutter of your camera?
When I was recently in Kuwait, there was a sixty-five-year-old man working on one of the flaming wells, and burning oil suddenly spilled all over his body. It was impossible for me to photograph him like that because I had previously taken photos of him when he was in good condition. He was a proud man. Any picture that I would have taken of him at that point would have reduced him, and I was sure that my relationship with him would have been destroyed if I’d taken that shot. It was impossible to press the shutter. Because I believe that if a photograph doesn’t make a man as big as he really is, it’s better not to photograph. The people I shoot who are suffering from starvation reveal from within their dignity and their struggle to be alive, and I don’t think the photos diminish the human quality.

There is also a shot that I keep in my head, and it’s one of the strongest I’ve ever lost. I had been working in the fields of Brazil —– not far from Brasília –— and I came to a place where I saw a man who was tied to a tree with a chain, like a dog. The man had no shirt, and he was crazed. It was a fantastic tree, the light was incredible, but to have taken a photo of that guy would have been so terrible to me because I would have been using his humiliated position. I wouldn’t have been “given” the photograph; I would have stolen it. So I didn’t do it.

The American photographer Diane Arbus once said, “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” In your photos, on the other hand, you seem to notice the opposite.
I’ll tell you: In my agency [Magnum], there are about forty members. Diane Arbus must personally have had a reason —– a reason for her –— to approach her work the way she did. Because, finally, you photograph with your mother, your father, your kids, your school, your friends, the rain that falls on your head … with all of you. It depends on what you are. And that’s it. I come from an undeveloped country where the social problems are very strong. And so it’s inevitable that my photos reflect that. But if you come from an economically developed society where human relations are hard and, ultimately, poor, then you must understand a view like that of Diane Arbus and accept it. Each person is concerned with his or her values.

Your own photos have a dramatic quality that sometimes suggests both the mood of Greek tragedies and biblical narratives like the Passion of Jesus.
I come from a Judeo-Christian society, and in the end what we learn from religion is to care about others. And when we see something that takes us inside a problem, it probably is connected to what we learned about religion when we were young.

As an adult, I have nothing to do with religion. To me, my photographs are probably a result of the imaginative universe inside my head. When I was a kid, for example, I had big dreams about the enormous mountains of Bolivia, with cyclones all around. Then one day, when I finally went to Bolivia, I took photographs in which my dreams appeared! Ideology, for me, is not political; it’s the imaginary —– what’s inside your cells, inside your neurons.

Of course, I understand I have a lot of dramatism inside of me, and I recognize that my photos are sometimes like theater. But it’s a theater I don’t prepare; it’s a theater inside my head.

What about the almost visionary light in your photos?
I love to work against the light –— placing people in front of the light. It’s a challenge for me to do that. And I suppose it’s part of the “dramatic” element of my work.

I love the light you find in the films of Glauber Rocha and in the tales of García Márquez. Just look at the photos of the Mexican photographers Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide. They both have this kind of light. We’re in the same family. I think there is a Latin American way of seeing the world. And it’s something you can’t teach, because it’s just a part of you.

In the photos I recently took in Kuwait, however, I witnessed something new to me – an absolutely incredible light … an apocalyptic light! During the day the sky was darker than at night, with no stars, no moon, only black smoke. Sometimes the smoke rose and a streak of sun appeared –— sometimes just a flash on a person –— then disappeared. Night gave way to night. It was like the end.

The conflagration in the Kuwaiti oil fields was shown over and over on TV for a while, yet now you hardly see anything about it.
I have a big admiration for television; it teaches and explains a lot of things. But TV presents news happening; then after one week there’s other’s news happening. New news. The burning oil fields won’t be finished with for at least two or three years. And the lead that is entering the atmosphere and moving around the world every day is a disaster. But if you go quickly from one disaster to another, you lose the sense of the essential. So I believe that it must be long-term reportage, documentaries, even photographic shows and photography books that are obliged to inform people about what is going on.

You’ve taken unflinching, harrowing photographs of starving people in Africa. And every year the famines seem to get worse and more unmanageable.
I really believe that we are only a moment in evolution and that one day we will arrive at a more developed time. And that will be the time when all humanity will be concerned with the whole of humanity, all men with all other men. That will be when we discover that compassion is the most important of human qualities.

How can compassion deal with almost 6 billion people on our planet?
That’s an incredible reality. But there’s a direct correlation between education, development and growth of population. You go to North Korea, the birthrate is 2.5; in South Korea, where large investment has occurred, the birthrate is 1.5 —– just higher than Japan’s. It’s a matter of economics. There’s a huge transfer of revenue from one side of the world to the other. The price of coffee, cocoa, copper, iron, is decreasing each year, while the price of sophisticated, industrial materials is growing each year. So the largest part of the population is working to transfer money to the rest of the world; the Third World finances the rich countries, and this can’t continue. We live quite well here, and we need to send something back. The day people have jobs and food in their own countries, they won’t immigrate to our countries, and the rate of population will decrease.

Think of it: The price of a single MiG-23 or an F-16 could buy 1200 tractors or at least ten or fifteen well-equipped hospitals. Imagine: 1000 warplanes, 1 million tractors. And with 1 million tractors you can grow food for the entire world! There’s something wrong with the present state of humanity. But I believe evolution has a kind of “auto-correction,” and it will eventually repair itself.

Let me tell you something: When I first traveled to Africa, in 1973, to do my first story on starvation, there were some Protestant and Catholic people with us who were more concerned with God than with the men and women dying in front of them. We also had a few doctors with us. But very few. Then when I did photos on starvation in 1984-85, the number of young doctors and nurses had increased by hundreds, even thousands … people from universities in the U.S.A. and Europe who had left their jobs for two to four months and traveled to Ethiopia and Sudan.

I remember meeting a woman doctor who had come all the way from Alaska to a refugee camp called El Fau, in Sudan. This was in February of 1985. She arrived in the evening and was transferred the next morning to the camp, where scores and scores of kids were dying. It was here that I first encountered that woman, in 104-degree weather, working indoors and crying because the situation was so difficult and exhausting. Two days later I saw her again, and now it was all just part of her life. That was incredible! And to me, that was already a sign that something was beginning to happen to humanity.

Some of the photographs that you’ve taken of African famine victims who are near death seem to pose the question, What is the line below which one is no longer human?
The people I shoot aren’t below that line –— there’s a lot further to go below that! You know, concerning the picture I took of the emaciated little African boy being weighed in the scales to determine his food rations: If you fed that child for one week, you wouldn’t recognize him as the same person, and in three weeks he’d be as strong as my own children! But I have seen people below the line. In New York City subways I’ve observed homeless people lying on the platforms, without any hope, without comprehension —– with thousands of passengers walking among them. Those people are really alone; they’re ten times worse off than that boy in the scales. People say, “You photograph misery.” And I reply: “I don’t photograph misery, just people who don’t have material goods or food. But they have hope and fight to have something better.” To me, misery is often spiritual. The people I photograph are hungry but not alone.

After years of photographing the poor and oppressed, does the notion of karma seem plausible to you?
Remember, I come from a place where death is a part of life. In northeast Brazil, many parts of Peru and India, or much of Africa, death is seen as a kind of transport from one life to another life. People trust and believe.

Now, regarding karma, it would be necessary to speak at night about something like that – when we’d have lots of time – not during the day. The travels and experiences I’ve had, occurrences I’ve read about, the people I’ve photographed, all kinds of coincidences – things have happened in front of me that have given me goose bumps and made me tremble. But I can’t go into this with you, it’s not something I can talk about.

As I’ve said, I believe humanity is just a specimen of evolution – we haven’t arrived at the final point yet. And many things that will occur in the development of the species will possibly lead to spiritual communication, transmission by another power.

Do you think photography is an aspect of this transmission?
We use material instruments – camera and paper – to transmit what the camera catches. Photography that’s used just to document, that’s nothing. Material integration isn’t really integration – because someone’s eyes are beautiful, for example. It occurs when human contact is created. I do photography because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t really live. To me, photography as a way of life is a spiritual thing.

In This Article: Coverwall, Photography, Poverty

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