PRINT February 1991


The light was there, illuminating the roses and the portrait, and flags around them, perhaps, bundled up, in the humblest popular solemnity.
—Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Divine Mimesis

THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF SEBASTIÃO Salgado leave remarkably durable afterimages that reappear long after one walks away from them. One that recurs to me often is from a Mexican cemetery. Centered in the foreground is a mongrel dog, seated like a sphinx on the raised concrete slab of a gravestone. Lighted tapers and funereal flowers surround it as several cloaked mourners move off into the mist above. The closest mourner glances over her shoulder at the devoted animal, whose humble offering has stopped time. It is an image of great solemnity, but it is not at all ponderous or stale. The dog will soon rise and trot away, sniffing the bases of the stones, and the other mourners will begin their long workday, as usual.

In one of Salgado’s magnificent images from the Serra Pelada gold mine in his native Brazil, one worker pauses briefly amid the hiving bodies in the pit. The resting worker’s stance—backed against an upright timber, feet together and arms folded—evokes a crucifixion, and the Boschian spectacle of the mine confirms this solemn evocation. But at the same time—and equally—the foregrounded man is never more nor less than a worker at rest. This extraordinary balance of alterity and likeness, of metaphoric and documentary function, is part of the Salgado signature. It allows his subjects to be at once themselves and more than themselves.

Like the mud-covered miners of Serra Pelada, Salgado’s images come up out of the earth, bringing the earth with them. From the sands of the Sahel to the mountains of Ecuador and Bolivia, his frames are filled with earth and the people who live close to the earth, those who know how hard it is to make a living. from it. One of the most telling differences between these photographs and those of one of Salgado’s principal progenitors, W. Eugene Smith, is the comparative cleanliness of the latter’s images. Even when photographing the smudged faces of miners in Wales, Smith made the lines clean and the contrasts sharp. Despite the “Family of Man” rhetoric consistently applied to Smith’s oeuvre, he was really an illuminator of contrasts more than of commonalities. Most of his photoessays tend to focus on individual heroes rising above the mediocrity that surrounds them. Smith’s subjects are pulled up out of relation into his photographs, while Salgado’s subjects are seen only and always in relation.

If there is a family of man today, most of its members live in the third world, and Salgado is its family photographer. He has said that the world’s goods are produced by “one family” that is spread out all over the globe, and for his current project, an epic documentation of the end of large-scale manual labor in mining and other industries due to mechanization, he has so far photographed workers in the Soviet Ukraine, Brazil, Cuba, India, Bangladesh, Poland, and Venezuela. This massive undertaking, which he calls “The Archeology of Industrialism,” is intended to be “a kind of homage to the working class and the old ways of producing that are disappearing.”1 Like all great documentarians, Salgado has a passion to save an image of these people and these particular ways of living before they vanish forever, an impulse that is essentially conservative. But unlike lesser practitioners, who are drawn only to the drama and the tragedy of loss, Salgado’s understanding of the geopolitical and economic background of the situations he documents (he was a development economist before becoming a photographer, in 1973) gives his images proactive urgency and address. Pathos is not his aim. Single images may appear nostalgic, but seen en suite and in relation to each other, as Salgado intends, they reveal a conflicted and often concealed history.

Behind the grandeur of the Serra Pelada images, for example, lies the entire history of the European exploitation of Latin America. Greed for gold and silver motivated the Conquest. On October 13,1492, one day after discovering he was lost and stumbling upon the New World, Columbus wrote in his diary: “I was attentive and worked hard to know if there was any gold.”2 Later on he refers to the purpose of his trip as “our activity, which is to gather gold.” Gold and slave labor have always gone together. It was Brazilian gold that allowed England to confront Napoleon. As the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano concludes, “The Indians have suffered, and continue to suffer, the curse of their own wealth; that is the drama of all Latin America.”3

Everyone knows that when the exploiters (by means of the exploited) produce goods, in reality they produce human beings (social relations).
—Pasolini, Lutheran Letters

The exploitation and cultural genocide that Pasolini decried in Italy continues on a global scale. Pasolini identified a guiding principle common to both the old Fascism in Italy and what he called the “new Fascism” of consumerist conformism, namely “the idea that the greatest ill in the world is poverty and that therefore the culture of the poorer classes must be replaced by the culture of the ruling class.”4 Most photojournalism and social-documentary photography originating in the United States and Europe begins with this assumption. The photographer operates as a distanced, superior, “objective” witness to war, poverty, labor, and exotic cultural practices in other parts of the world. There is a big market for this kind of photography. As Galeano notes, “Poverty is a commodity that fetches a high price on the luxury market.”5 Photographs taken from this position may elicit pity, sorrow, or guilt in their viewers, but they will never provide information for change. They only work to reinforce the construction of the center and the periphery: North and South, rich and poor, superior and inferior. It cannot be otherwise. As Salgado says, “You photograph with all your ideology.”6

What sets Salgado’s images apart from this work is his engaged relation to his subject, a product of his life-long commitment to social justice. The emotional static that allows us to turn away from other photographs of starving people, for instance—their exploitativeness, their crudity, their sentimentality—is not there to protect us in the case of Salgado’s reportage. The difficult questions that arise from such representations—the estheticization of suffering and the concomitant objectification of the other—do not disappear when we look at his pictures. They are, in fact, intensified, clarified, and made more insistent.

At the same time, Salgado’s devotion to the people he photographs often transforms them into images of the sacred. A coal miner in India, with his lighted hat and pilgrim’s staff, could be Saint James in a 15th-century illumination, and the skeletal corpses of the Sahel in their winding clothes resemble the ones fought over by guardian angels and demons in a medieval Book of Hours. The three angels of Juazeiro do Norte, Brazil, the Condor-men of Ecuador, and Lot’s wife in Mali in 1985 are all depicted in transformation, as aspects of the divine.

The spiritual issues involved in the struggle between dominant and oppressed cultures are dealt with in Salgado’s many depictions of religious practices, from Coptic burial rites in Ethiopia to Tarahumara trance and animal sacrifice; from first communion in Brazil to a thanksgiving prayer to the Mixe Indian god Kioga in Oaxaca, Mexico. These images of spiritual transcendence are perhaps the most troublesome for contemporary North American viewers who, accustomed to the materialist dualism that finds a contradiction between radical politics and metaphysics, between history and mythology, between justice and transcendence, are made uneasy by Salgado’s refusal of duality. But the West’s materialist fix does not hold away from the center. The Argentinian philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel might have had Salgado’s photographs before him when he wrote:

Beyond phenomenology the road of epiphany opens: revelation (or apocalyptic) of the other through the other’s face, which is not merely a phenomenon or manifestation, a presence, but an epiphenomenon, vicarious, trace or vestige of the absent, of the mysterious, of one beyond the present. Ontology (phenomenology) gives way to metaphysics (apocalyptic epiphany of the other). . . . Epiphany fulfills itself as a revelation of the one who makes decisions beyond the horizon of the world or the frontier of the state.7

The sacred lies behind nearly every image in Salgado’s most difficult series: the 1984-85 photographs of the famine-ravaged Sahel region of Africa. Salgado did not set out to make sacred images, any more than did the military photographers who documented the liberation of the death camps in Poland. He set out as a dedicated documentarian to show the world what was going on so that we would pressure our governments to put a stop to it. Unlike the hundreds of “shooters” from all over the world who dropped in to “cover” the famine, Salgado became involved at a different level. While working on a series documenting the effects of famine in northern Brazil, Salgado realized that starvation was a world problem and needed to be approached as such. In 1984, the French medical relief group Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without borders) asked him to return to Africa to record the famine relief work they were doing. He photographed in the huge refugee camps in the Sudan and elsewhere in Ethiopia, Chad, and Mali for 15 months, traveling with medical teams and living with the dying. In an interview dealing with his experiences in Ethiopia, Salgado said,

What I found was beyond my imagination. In the first camp I visited, there were 80,000 people. They were starving. You would see the debris of the dying—bodies of men and women and many, many children. More than 100 people were dying every day.

In the first few days at a camp like this, making photographs was impossible, because of the emotional situation. You are too stunned to shoot. But after a few days you stop crying. And after a few more days you know you have a job to do. It is a job just like the job of the doctors who have come to treat the sick or the engineers who have come to build housing.8

It is difficult to look at these documents from the Sahel, but looking, one realizes how very different they are from other photographs of starving people in Africa. Whereas those other images end at pity or compassion, Salgado’s images begin at compassion and lead from there to further recognitions. One of the first is that starvation does not obliterate human dignity. A young boy, naked and gaunt, nevertheless stands tall, supported by a walking stick, rhyming shadows with a tree. A mother in an Ethiopian refugee camp, her bald skull mapped with pain, cradles her clear-eyed child and waits, defiantly. Salgado did not photograph passive victims, and pity does not suffice.

Salgado desperately wanted these images to be published and widely distributed when they were made, to raise a cry of alarm. But even though, by 1985, the photographer was winning prize after prize, and his work was reproduced in all the top news magazines (his utterly inconsequential photograph of John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan was published thousands of times all over the world), the photographs from the Sahel were judged to be “unsalable” in most markets. Thus while they were published as a book in France under the title Sahel: L’Homme en détresse (Sahel: man in distress) in 1986, and in Spain as Sahel: El Fin del Camino (Sahel: the end of the road) in 1988, very few appeared in the U.S. at the time (aside from two pages in the New York Times and four pages in Newsweek). Salgado’s editor, curator, and collaborator, Fred Ritchin, has commented on the irony that these documents, which when they were made were judged by publishers and most magazine picture editors to be “too disturbing,” can only now be seen, five years later, in a museum retrospective of a “famous” photographer.9 Ritchin calls this evidence of “an unfortunate tendency to elevate the messenger while denying the message.”10

At a time when the “message” and even the evidential veracity of documentary photography itself is disappearing into the pixels of digital imaging,11 and the efficacy of social-documentary photography is being fundamentally questioned, the photographs of Sebastião Salgado appear almost as a new kind of document, with a very different address and relation to the other and yielding quite different information about difference. Eschewing entirely the vaunted “objectivity” of photojournalism, Salgado works in the realm of collective subjectivities, aspiring to that “transcendence of self which calls for epiphany of the Other.”12 It is an aspiration that could breathe new life into the documentary tradition.

David Levi Strauss is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

All photos courtesy the artist and Magnum Photos.


1. Sebastião Salgado, in an interview with John Bloom, Photo Metro 9, November 1990, p. 4.

2. Christopher Columbus, quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, p. 8.

3. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, trans. Cedric Belfrage, New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1973, p. 59.

4. Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Intervention at the Radical Party Congress,” in Lutheran Letters, trans. Stuart Hood, Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1983, p. 123.

5. Galeano, “Salgado, 17 Times,” trans. Asa Zatz, in Sebastião Salgado: An Uncertain Grace, exhibition catalogue, New York: Aperture in association with the San Francisco Museum of Art, 1990, p. 11.

6. Salgado, quoted in Fred Ritchin, “The Lyric Documentarian,” in Sebastião Salgado, p. 147.

7. Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation, trans. Aquilina Martinez and Christine Morkovsky, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985, p. 58.

8. Salgado as told to David Schonauer, “The Sight of Despair,” American Photo, 1 no. 1, January-February 1990, p. 40.

9. If current NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer has his way, they may not long be seen there either. I refer to a statement Frohnmayer made last August that a display of images that “leads to confrontation . . . would not be appropriate for public funding.” Asked to clarify, he gave the example of a photograph of Holocaust victims displayed “in the entrance of a museum where all would have to confront it, whether they chose to or not” (“Don’t Confront the Holocaust?,” Time, 13 August 1990, p. 49).

10. Ritchin, p. 149.

11. The recent and rapid development of digital imaging technology, which makes it possible to scan any photograph, digitize it, and then alter it at will, has caused a flurry of speculation concerning the “collapse of photographic legitimacy” (Martha Rosier) and the “decline of the aura of believability” in photographs. See Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography/How Computer Technology Is Changing Our View of the World, New York: Aperture, 1990.

12. Emmanuel Levinas, L’Humanisme de l’autre homme, Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1972, n.p.