Salgado, 17 Times

Full view of the Serra Pelada gold mine Brazil, 1986 (Sebastião Salgado)

This is Eduardo Galeano’s essay introducing An Uncertain Grace, a collection of Sebastião Salgado’s photography:

1. Are these photographs, these figures of tragic grandeur, carvings in stone or wood by a sculptor in despair? Was the sculptor the photographer? Or God? Or the Devil? Or earthly reality?This much is certain: it would be difficult to look at these figures and remain unaffected. I cannot imagine anyone shrugging his shoulder, turning away unseeing, and sauntering off, whistling.

2. Hunger looks like the man that hunger is killing. The man looks like the tree the man is killing. The trees have arms, the people, branches. Wizened bodies, gnarled: trees made of bones, the people of knots and roots that writhe under the sun. The trees and the people, ageless. All born thousands of years ago – who knows how many? – and still they are standing, inexplicably standing, beneath a heaven that forsakes them.

3. This world is so sad that the rainbows come out in black and white and so ugly that the vultures fly upside down after the dying. A song is sung in Mexico:

Se va la vida por el agujero Como la mugre por el lavadero. [Life goes down the drain Like dirt in the sink.]

And in Colombia they say:

El costo de la vida sube y sube y el valor de la vida baja y baja. [The more the cost of living goes up the less life is worth.]

But light is a secret buried under the garbage and Salgado’s photographs tell us that secret.

The emergence of the image from the waters of the developer, when the light becomes forever fixed in shadow, is a unique moment that detaches itself from time and is transformed into forever. These photographs will live on after their subjects and their author, bearing testimony to the world’s naked truth and hidden splendor. Salgado’s camera moves about the violent darkness, seeking light, stalking light. Does the light descend from the sky or rise out of us? That instant of trapped lightthat gleam-in the photographs reveals to us what is unseen, what is seen but unnoticed; an unperceived presence, a powerful absence. It shows us that concealed within the pain of living and the tragedy of dying there is a potent magic, a luminous mystery that redeems the human adventure in the world.

4. The mouth, not yet dead, fixed to the spout of a pitcher. The pitcher, white, glowing: a breast.

This neck, a child’s, a man’s, an old man’s, rests on someone’s hand. The neck not yet dead, but already given up for dead, can no longer sustain the weight of the head.

5. Salgado’s photographs, a multiple portrait of human pain, at the same time invite us to celebrate the dignity of humankind. Brutally frank, these images of hunger and suffering are yet respectful and seemly. Having no relation to the tourism of poverty, they do not violate but penetrate the human spirit in order to reveal it. Salgado sometimes shows skeletons, almost corpses, with dignity – all that is left to them. They have been stripped of everything but they have dignity. That is the source of their ineffable beauty. This is not a macabre, obscene exhibitionism of poverty. It is a poetry of horror because there is a sense of honor.

In Andalusia I was once told of a very poor fisherman who went about peddling shellfish in a basket. This poor fisherman refused to sell his shellfish to a young gentleman who wanted all of them. He offered to pay the fisherman whatever price he asked, but the fisherman refused to sell for the simple reason that he took a dislike to the young gentleman. And he simply said to him:

“I am the master in my hunger.”

6. A little dog stretched out upon his friend’s grave. His head high, he keeps vigil over him in his sleep between the lighted candles.An automobile among ruins, inside it a black woman in a bridal gown looking at a flower made of cloth.

Impossible ships in the midst of the infinite wilderness of sand.

Tunics – or banners – of sand lashed by the wind.

Cactuses like swords of the earth, armored arms of the earth.

In the factories pipelines that are intestines or voracious boas.

And on the earth, out of the earth, there are peasant feet: feet of earth and time.

7. Salgado photographs people. Casual photographers photograph phantoms.

As an article of consumption poverty is a source of morbid pleasure and much money. Poverty is a commodity that fetches a high price on the luxury market.

Consumer-society photographers approach but do not enter. In hurried visits to scenes of despair or violence, they climb out of the plane or helicopter, press the shutter release, explode the flash: they shoot and run. They have looked without seeing and their images say nothing. Their cowardly photographs soiled with horror or blood may extract a few crocodile tears, a few coins, a pious word or two from the privileged of the earth, none of which changes the order of their universe. At the sight of the dark-skinned wretched, forsaken by God and pissed on by dogs, anybody who is nobody confidentially congratulates himself: life hasn’t done too badly by me, in comparison. Hell serves to confirm the virtues of paradise.

Charity, vertical, humiliates. Solidarity, horizontal, helps. Salgado photographs from inside, in solidarity. He remained in the Sahel desert for fifteen months when he went there to photograph hunger. He traveled in Latin America for seven years to garner a handful of photographs.

8. The miners of Serra Pelada: bodies of clay. More than fifty thousand men in northern Brazil buried in clay, hunting for gold. Loaded with clay they scale the mountain, slipping sometimes and falling, each fallen life no more important than a pebble that falls. A host of miners climbing. Images of the pyramid builders in the days of the Pharaohs? An army of ants? Ants, lizards? The miners have lizard skins and lizard eyes. Do the wretched of the earth live in the world’s zoo?

Salgado’s camera reaches in to reveal the light of human life with tragic intensity, with sad tenderness. A hand, open, reaches out from nowhere to the miner struggling up the slope, flattened by his burden. The hand, like the hand in Michelangelo’s fresco, touching the first man and, in touching, creating him. The miner on his way to the top of Serra Pelada – or Golgotha – leans, resting, on a cross.

9. This is stripped-down art. A naked language that speaks for the naked of the earth. Nothing superfluous in these images, miraculously free of rhetoric, demagogy, belligerence.

Salgado makes no concessions, though it would be easy and, unquestionably, commercially advantageous for him to do so. The profoundest sadness of the universe is expressed without offering consolation, with no sugar coating. In Portuguese, salgado means “salty.”

The picturesque, studiously avoided by Salgado, would cushion the violence of his blows and foster the concept of the Third World, as, after all, just “another” world: a dangerous, lurking world but at the same time simpático, a circus of odd little creatures.

10. Reality speaks a language of symbols. Each part is a metaphor of the whole. In Salgado’s photographs, the symbols disclose themselves from the inside to the outside. The artist does not extract the symbols from his head, to generously offer them to reality, requiring that they be used. Rather, reality selects the precise moment that speaks most perfectly for it: Salgado’s camera denudes it, tears it from time and makes it into image, and the image makes itself symbol – a symbol of our time and our world. These faces that scream without opening their mouths are “other” faces no longer. No longer, for they have ceased being conveniently strange and distant, innocuous excuses for charity that eases guilty consciences. We are all those dead, going back centuries or millennia, who nevertheless remain stubbornly alive – alive down to their profoundest and most painful radiance, who are not pretending to be alive for a photograph.

These images that seem torn from the pages of the Old Testament are actually portraits of the human condition in the twentieth century, symbols of our one world, which is not a First, a Third, or a Twentieth World. From their mighty silence, these images, these portraits, question the hypocritical frontiers that safeguard the bourgeois order and protect its right to power and inheritance.

11. Eyes of a child looking on death, not wanting to see it, unable to look away. Eyes riveted on death, snared by death – death that has come to take those eyes and that child. Chronicle of a crime.

12. 1 have spent five minutes searching for words as I gaze at a blank sheet of paper. In those five minutes, the world spent ten million dollars on armaments and one hundred and sixty children starved to death or died of curable illness. That is to say, during my five minutes of reflection, the world spent ten million dollars on armaments in order that one hundred and sixty children could be murdered with utter impunity in the war of wars, the most silent, the most undeclared war, the war that goes by the name of peace.

Bodies out of concentration camps. Auschwitzes of hunger. A system for purification of the species? Aimed at the “inferior races” (which reproduce like rabbits), starvation is used instead of gas chambers. And for the same price, a method of population control. The epoch of peace by fear was ushered in with the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For want of world wars, starvation checks population explosion. Meanwhile, new bombs police the hungry. A human being can die only once, as far as we know, but the number of nuclear bombs currently stockpiled provides the option of killing everyone twelve times.

Sick with the plague of death, this world that eradicates the hungry instead of hunger produces food enough for all of humanity and more. Yet, some die of starvation and others of overeating. To guarantee that the usurpation of bread shall endure, there are twenty-five times as many soldiers as doctors in the world. Since 1980, the poor countries have increased military spending while expenditures for public health were cut back by half.

An African economist, Davison Budhoo, resigned from the International Monetary Fund. In his farewell letter he wrote: “There has been too much blood, as you know. It runs in rivers. It has befouled me completely. I sometimes feel that there isn’t soap enough in the world to wash away what I have done in your name.”

13. Houses like the empty skins of dead animals. The blankets are shrouds and the shrouds dry shells that encase shriveled fruits or deformed beings.

People bearing bundles, bundles bearing people. Bearers scarcely able to walk the mountains, bowed under timbers large as coffins that they carry on their shoulders, becoming part of their shoulders. But they walk on the clouds.

14. The Third World – the “other” world – worthy only of contempt or pity. In the interest of good taste, not often mentioned.

Had AIDS not spread beyond Africa, the new plague would have gone unnoticed. It hardly would have mattered if thousands or millions of Africans had died of AIDS. That isn’t news. In what is known as the Third World, death from plague is a natural death.

If Salman Rushdie had stayed in India and written his novels in Hindustani, Tamil, or Bengali, his death sentence would have attracted no attention. In the countries of Latin America, for example, several writers have been condemned to death and executed by recent military dictatorships. The European countries recalled their ambassadors from Iran in a gesture of indignation and protest against Rushdie’s death sentence, but when the Latin American writers were sentenced – and executed – the European countries did not recall their ambassadors. And the reason they were not recalled was because their ambassadors were busy selling arms to the murderers. In the Third World, death by bullets is a “natural” death.

From the standpoint of the great communications media that uncommunicate humanity, the Third World is peopled by third-class inhabitants distinguishable from animals only by their ability to walk on two legs. Theirs are problems of nature not of history: hunger, pestilence, violence are in the natural order of things.

15. A Way of the Cross with statues of stone. A Way of the Cross with people of flesh and blood. Is that scruffy child wandering the dunes of the desert gentle as Jesus? Does he possess Jesus’ anguished beauty? Or is he Jesus on the way to the place where he was born?

16. Hunger lies. It simulates being an insoluble mystery or a vengeance of the gods. Hunger is masked, reality is masked.

Salgado was an economist before he found out he was a photographer. He first came to the Sahel as an economist. There, for the first time, he tried to use the camera’s eye to penetrate the skins reality uses to hide itself.

The science of economics had already taught him a great deal about the subject of masks. In economics, what appears to be, never is. Good fortune through numbers has little or nothing to do with the greater good. Let us postulate a country with two inhabitants. That country’s per capita income, let us suppose, is $4,000. At first glance, that country would seem to be doing not at all badly. Actually, however, it turns out that one of the inhabitants gets $8,000 and the other zero. Well might the other ask those adept in the occult science of economics: “Where do I collect my per capita income? At which window do they pay?”

Salgado is a Brazilian. How many does the development of Brazil develop? The statistics show spectacular economic growth over the last three decades, particularly through the long years of military dictatorship. In 1960, however, one out of every three Brazilians was malnourished. Today, two out of every three are. There are 16 million abandoned children. Out of every ten children who die, seven are killed by hunger. Brazil is fourth in the world in food exports, fifth in area, and sixth in hunger.

17. Caravans of pilgrims wander the African desert, dying, searching futilely for a blade of grass, an insect to eat. Are they people – or mummies that move? Are they walking statues, disfigured by the wind, in the last throes or asleep, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, perhaps at once dead and alive?

A man carries his son – or bones that were his son – in his arms and that man is a tree, rigid and tall, rooted in the solitude. Rooted in the solitude, an amazing tree caresses the air, swaying its long branches, the foliage a head leaning over a shoulder or a breast. A dying child manages to move its hand in a final gesture, the gesture of a caress, and caressing, dies. Is that woman who walks, or drags herself, against the wind a bird with broken wings? Is that scarecrow with arms thrown open in the solitude a woman?

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

One thought on “Salgado, 17 Times”

  1. If my history lesson in BA Photography class is correctly remembered, Salgado trained as an economist. This would certainly explain the power of his message through the camera.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: