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More light on the subject.

Sebastiao Salgado demonstrates a serene faith in the power of still, black-and-white photography in an age where color photographs and video reportage reign supreme. He can sum up worlds of experience and decades of time in a single image. Consider his 1986 photograph, entitled "A moment of rest," taken at the Brazilian gold mine of Serra Pelada. A vast spectacle is encapsulated in a single image of a man catching his breath while thousands toil around him. It is a moment that would disappear in video or film, vanish in the swirl of human activity.

"If you looked at the 50,000 gold miners on TV, it would seem almost normal because you're used to masses of people in that small frame," says Fred Ritchin, the former New York Times photo editor who recently curated Salgado's mid-career retrospective exhibition, An Uncertain Grace. "Their situation passes and a new situation appears in the next subject. But when you look at the still [photograph], you can really look and almost count the people and begin to feel what it might be like to be in it. It's a different kind of openness to the reader. The reader has much more ability to linger, more ability to roam."

Salgado works in the tradition of documentary photography, creating magazine and newspaper photographs--and books--to tell stories from all parts of the globe. But he does not generally concentration on the breaking news, the immediate occurrences of today for publication tomorrow morning. He is a photographer of conditions, not necessarily of events.

Born February 8, 1944, in Aimores, Minais Gerais, Brazil, Salgado was raised on a cattle ranch. He earned a master's degree in economics from Sao Paulo University in Brazil and Vanderbilt University in Brazil and Vanderbilt University in the United States. After completing course work for his doctorate at the University of Paris, he worked for the International Coffee Organization in London from 1971 to 1973. A business trip to Ethiopia with his wife's camera in tow changed the direction of his life. The images that haunted him from that visit were not of the mountain coffee plantations, but the effects of amine on the people living in the Sahel at the desert's edge. Soon after, he was working for the World Health Organization, documenting famine in the Sahel. Economist no more, Salgado was launched on his career as a photojournalist.

The Sahel was to be a touchstone for Salgado. He reutned in 1984-85 to create a body of photographs that remain controverial half a decade later. The photographs are Goyaesque in their unblinking presentation of extraordinary human suffering. At the same time, they demostrate a breathtaking formal beauty that has eanred Salgado brickbats from cirtics who argue that by making beautiful images, he creates a safe emotional distance between those who suffer and those who view their photographs. One shows a skeletal child hoisted in a sling to be weighed. Another depicts a woman blinded by disease, but with her dignity unbowed. The photographs do indeed embody a formal beauty, but Salgado avoids stereotyping the people of the Sahel as victims and shows instead their spiritual resilience. Because their humanity is so palpable, the conditions of their suffering seem all the more horrible.

Salgado considers that his professional skills as a photographer are a tool to promote understanding and stimulate discussion. "I believe it is necessary that all people in the world know what is happening in such places [as the Sahel]," he told a Baltimore, Maryland, art school audience last spring. Although Salgado is a member of the elite and prestigious Magnum agency, which represents many of the world's top photojournalists, he works less and less on assignment from editors. Rather, he charts his own course, choosing subjects that he deems important. Like other Magnum photographers, he retains all rights to the resulting images, including the right to assign royalties as he sees fit. For example, sales from the French book Sahel: L'Homme en Detresse (Man in Distress) and the Spanish book Sahel: El fin de camino (End of the Road) benefitted the physicans' relief group, Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

Salgado explores his subjects through a gathering of images, rather than trying to capture a complex story in a single photograph. As a result, he tends to create book-length photo essays. His first such project, accomplished during many trips between 1977 to 1984, was a study of the rural people of Latin America. Shoowing on his current project, a worldwide documentation of manual labor, is scheduled to conclude at the end of 1992. (Images from all the Sahel as well as the manual labor and Latin America projects are included in the 154-page catalogue for his retrospective exhibition, An Uncertain Grace, published by Aperture.)

The Latin American book--known variously as Autres Ameriques, Otras Americas or Other Americas--appeared in 1986 in different editions in France, Spain and the United States. If the simultaneous publication in three disparate countries and languages emphasized the Brazil-born, Paris-based Salgado's position as a citizen of the world at large, the subject matter and its treatment left no doubt where his roots and symphathies lay. He seeks to unveil the basic human qualities of his subjects, whatever their surroundings. While hints of deprivation creep into the photographs, the overwhelming message is that individual dignity and happiness do not depend on material wealth. Many of the photos are portraits, and Salgado moves in close to his subjects. In return, they show an ease in front of the camera--confirming the photographer's frequent pronouncement that "a photo is not made. It is a gift."

Salgado's current project is Herculean in its ambition. He believes that manual labor will vanish in the coming decades as technology displaces the human worker, so he is determined to document "the End of Manual Labor" or, as he also calls it, "the Archaeology of Industrialization," through images of people at work. The Brazilian gold miners are part of the project, as are Cuban cane cutters, limestone quarrymen in Indiana, U.S., oil-firefighting crews in Kuwait, and auto workers in the Ukraine. In all, he expects to represent laborers from at least 40 countries.

The photographs are often heroic in scale and display his belief in the dignity of physical labor. As in much of his ealier work, Salgado's humanitarian impulses are so strong that he often steps over the line of objectivity that is an unspoken rule of photojournalism. As a result, his personal point of view both romaticizes and celebrates the human spirit.

In the final analysis, Salgado's principal concern is with the people he photrographs. To make their pictures, he becomes engaged in their lives. Franoise Piffard, a Magnum editor, observes, "Some photographers talk about how technique worked, or the situation in general. Sebastiao gives you little stories of what people said. He is very close to the people he photographs."

It is as if each individual he meets has a story to tell to the camera, and Salgado listens, attentive, placing the tale in focus.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers living in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:photographer Sebastiao Salgado
Author:Harris, Patricia Roberts; Lyon, David
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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