Sebastiao Salgado: Tales of a humanist

Sebastiao Salgado's real strength is the extraordinary union between the content of his reports and the formal and compositional perfection of his work.

Sebastiao Salgado’s real strength is the extraordinary union between the content of his reports and the formal and compositional perfection of his work.

For over forty years, he has been investigating the most urgent social issues to understand the contemporary world. An exploration that intertwines workers’ rights, poverty, and so on, documenting how environmental, economic and political changes affect the life of people. His pictures become a means to inform, to provoke discussions, debates and feelings.

Sebastiao Salgado | Image Source: Wikipedia

Sebastiao Ribeiro Salgado was born on February 8, 1944 in Aimorés, Brazil. At 16, he moved to nearby Vitoria, where he finished high school and began university studies in economics. In 1967 he married Lélia Deluiz Wanick.

After further studies as an economist in Sao Paulo, the two moved first to Paris and then to London, working as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. There, he became interested in photography. In 1973, he returned to Paris with his wife and began to pursue a career as a photographer: working first as a freelance and then for the Sygma photo agency, documenting the revolution in Portugal, the war in Angola and the events in Monzabico.

During some trips on behalf of the World Coffee Organization, he begins to get to know Africa and to understand that to find solutions to Third World problems, one must first testify. The tool he will use to fulfill this mission will be the camera. So, in 1973, he quit his job and began a three-year journey that would take him to travel all over Africa with a new profession: photographer.

The most important thing for me is to have my cereal. I have milk and granola and cheese. And that’s it. I have a lot of cereals that I eat all day long, and I have a big appetite. All over the planet I carry my cereals!

Contrary to the typical news photographers, Salgado preferred not to run after immediate current events, but to go where nothing happens except the persistence of a situation, critical or simply peculiar. The first thing he starts with is the drought in the Sahel (Sub-Saharan Africa, near the Sahara Desert). 

After an accurate report on the drought in Africa, he decides to change direction. Talking about the situation in poor countries or countries that need help becomes his main purpose. In 1979 he also joined the Magnum Photos, the agency founded by Robert Capa.

His numerous trips to the countries of Latin America, more than fifteen until ’83, gave rise to the publication of Un’altra America, a large fresco on the ways of life and working conditions of the peasants. These images flow into his early books. In 1994, he left he Magnum Agency and together with his wife, founded the Amazonas Images agency.

In the mid-1990s, deeply touched by the crudeness of the scenes seen during the genocide in Rwanda, he decided to devote himself to an environmental project at the family hacienda in Brazil.

So many times I’ve photographed stories that show the degradation of the planet. I had one idea to go and photograph the factories that were polluting, and to see all the deposits of garbage. But, in the end, I thought the only way to give us an incentive, to bring hope, is to show the pictures of the pristine planet – to see the innocence.

At the same time, he shifts his attention as a photographer to environmental issues, and starts working on the “Genesis” project which will lead him to abandon his portraitist characteristics, and to create a colossal homage to the Planet, representing animals and landscapes not yet contaminated by the human progress.

With the end of the twentieth century, traditional and manual works quickly began to disappear, progressively supplanted by the advent of new technologies. “The hand of man” is a great tribute to the human condition and to work, which he realizes by telling this epochal passage in images.

From the gold mines of Brazil to the oil wells of the Persian Gulf, from the Channel to the Indonesian sulfur mines, he is always there, ready to immortalize drama and despair in 35 mm, but above all, the dignity of the workers.

During the 90’s, he began a seven-year journey to give life to the “On the way” and Portraits of children on the way” project, during which he will visit forty countries to witness the exodus afflicting the planet. He documented humanity on the move: not only refugees, but also immigrants to the immense megacities of the Third World.

Winner of many prizes, Sebastiao is a Special Representative of the UNICEF and honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. His images of a population of derelicts deeply affect public opinion and he is considered, rightly, as one of the greatest “humanist photographers”. 

The problem is, we live in a society where all that interests us is power and money. So we don’t have any interest in our children, and what we leave for our children is not important.

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