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.
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.