A French friend of mine mentioned The Salt Of The Earth some time ago, mentioning that she deeply enjoyed it and thought I ought to see it. Unfortunately it was not yet released in English and certainly not in downloadable form accessible to strange folk like me working in Afghanistan.
A few days ago, a reader posted a comment in this review of Salgado’s book ‘Genesis‘, which led me to check availability on iTunes and there it was. I therefore thought I would watch the movie before replying to his comment, which I appreciate very much. I wondered if the movie would change my views on Salgado and his work. In essence, this piece contains my reply.
To make things simpler, I am going to suggest that when considering Salgado and his work, we can look at two criteria. This very simple formula is where the discussion largely ended up, when we discussed Bruce Gilden’s ‘Faces‘.
- Motivation – this being why he does what he does. Is he cynical and knowingly exploitative?
- Effectiveness – is he effective enough to justify the intrusion or adverse impacts of his efforts?
As some of you will know, Salgado has been criticised heavily for his aesthetic, which some believe glorifies suffering – this being the crux of the comment I have referred to. In short, some consider his work ‘too beautiful’, even ‘insultingly beautiful’. I agree that much of his work is beautiful or at least possessed with a compelling aesthetic that can be likened to visual poetry. However, the context in which we place this observation surely depends upon the motivations of the man and its impact. We’re back to points 1 & 2 above and I’ll come back to aesthetics soon.
Having watched The Salt Of The Earth, I can’t say my opinion has changed: I believe Salgado is a good man, whose work is the product of a deep commitment to social (and latterly, environmental) change. I sense nothing cynical or unreasonably self-serving in the articles I have read, interviews I have watched and heard, or in The Salt Of The Earth itself. In fact, I would go to the opposite end of the scale and say that he appears to be rather like James Nachtwey in his motivation. Whereas faith and human empathy drives Nachtwey (a moral, or humanistic crusade if you will), Salgado appears to be driven by a fairly unabashed left-wing social justice and political agenda, with concern for people and communities at its core. This seemingly centers around a belief that globalisation is having a massive adverse impact on local economies, cultures and environments, either directly, or indirectly as a result of human conflict.
Guessing at Salgado’s motivation is not difficult. He saw the farm he loved as a child collapse into dust as a result of environmental damage that led to catastrophic soil erosion. The general area in which he grew up is known for massive mineral exploitation and, with the farm having crumbled away, he needed to rely upon a profession. Medicine gave way to economics. Economics led him to places where he was to confront the full horror of humanitarian disasters caused or exacerbated by social and economic factors. At this point he was an amateur photographer, but his photographs caught attention and he soon felt their voice outstripped that of his written pieces on economic factors. Sebastiao and Lelia took a gamble and his photographic career took off. This all seems fairly straightforward, assuming the facts are as presented: he lost his ancestral home, but had the education and mobility to leave. Those he photographed were losing their homes and their lives, or toiling beyond comprehension to retain them. However, they could not so easily adapt and it is their difficult fates, which his career has concentrated on. Just look at the titles of some of his books: Migrations, Exodus…Workers
Onto effect: This is an area where it seems Salgado has never stopped pushing, but it is the quality of his images that have earned him an audience. He is the consummate ‘activist photographer’, but were he engaged primarily in conflict reporting, effecting change would be more difficult. However, his work has been more generally humanitarian, economic, social and environmental in nature and so the scope for effective activism has been greater. Its impossible to know, but I suspect that Salgado is the best known living photojournalist, by name and by deed and the sheer volume of memorable images he has produced still boggles my mind. The subtle effects of lobbying on local political and commercial decisions are likely to be the hardest to see, but probably the most important of them all.
The Salgados’ company, Amazonas Images, singularly focuses on using Sebastiao’s photographs to bring about change. However, more directly, they have established the Instituto Terra in his native Brazil, which is engaged in reforestation. His home farm has long since been handed over to the institute and it is once again covered in trees and walked by a diversity of species – his farm and several thousand other hectares. I am not going to claim that Salgado is single handedly changing the world, but he appears to be doing all that one man could be expected to.
Salgado’s aesthetic remains contentious, but why is this? In the context of ‘art photography discourse’, I can imagine that his style is regarded as belonging to an era now passed. One could almost say that he combines a romanticised sense of the picturesque with hard-hitting documentary content. If the two appear out of kilter, the result is not: people like looking at, buying and talking about his images. This creates discussion, furthers causes and helps fund the activism he seeks. I do not think that Salgado has consciously, or cynically, sought out a ‘postcard aesthetic’ that would bring images of human misery into the comfort of wealthy homes. I say this, because his style has remained largely constant from his earliest days. He shoots how he shoots, but it has struck a chord with the public and galleries alike. To suggest that the man romanticises misery is a hard sell, to me at least. When you begin to appreciate the depth of the horrors that Salgado has witnessed and hear him talk, romanticism is a word that just doesn’t ‘fit’ anywhere. ‘Cinematic’, yes…. ‘epic’, yes…. but all the while, I feel that people are commanded a clear respect. It has become fashionable to show human horrors in gory detail, but where is the respect in that? Yes it has a place, but it has become an end in itself for some photographers, which is far beyond simple efforts to depict events ‘as they are’.
A critic once told me that he thought my images of Afghanistan weren’t horrifying enough. This saddened me, because I was not aiming to bring attention to horrors, which people already knew about very well. He would have had me cheapen myself and exploit my subjects to feed an appetite for gore, while ignoring the other facets of the human experience I was aiming to share. One can only think of the colosseum and the spectacles demanded by ancient Rome’s citizens. That Salgado presents his subjects with dignity, without reflections of a butcher’s shop, is that so bad? I would argue that his substantial public platform and influence argue the very contrary. His message is still circulating long after eyes have turned away from grittier work. Both have their place, clearly, and I wonder if they need each other: too much visual discomfort and people turn away. Too little and people become habituated to depictions of suffering, perhaps?
Having watched The Salt of the Earth, I can only say that my respect for the man has deepened. I realised his commitment, but was still surprised to hear of how much time he spent away from his family. Genesis took seven years to complete, but it seems Salgado has been in the field for his entire life, spending years on all of his major projects. He has frequently faced hardship, disease and immense danger and I do not believe these are not the deeds of a man hoping to romanticise a world that might kill him.
I also sense a great empathy throughout his work, whether he is depicting workers in heavy industry, or children suffering famine. It is impossible to state where the aesthetic originates from within the man, but intuitive guesses are not always without value. Mine would be that it is a product of this empathy; empathy for people, things, environments and an appreciation for their connectedness. While some images are undoubtedly ‘beautiful’, to me they are so in the same way a melancholic song can be painfully beautiful, simultaneously conferring dignity and respect upon the victim and resentment at the cause. After all, beauty and horror are not mutually exclusive terms, just as emotions are not binary. In this way, his aesthetic appears more a visual unification of deep sadness and empathy.
For some, this will not suffice and they may ask ‘If he is so concerned, where is the raw outrage? Where is the anger?’ This is a fair point, but not everyone processes the world, especially complex events, in this way. For others, it’s because such a state simply cannot be sustained for long periods of time. I don’t think it takes any more emotional commitment and fidelity to the cause to shout and scream outrage, just as it takes no more emotion or empathy to produce gritty, uncompromising images. Its just a different way of processing the world and we’re all different.
I believe that the Salt Of the Earth is a must see for everyone interested in documentary photography, or Salgado specifically. It tells a complete story that is so simple and fitting, it matches the assumptions one’s mind has already used to plug holes in our knowledge of the man. However, be warned: the film makes it clear that his success was no accident. It was not the result of special talent or a lucky break alone. It was the product of immense ability, staggering commitment, absolute support and ingenuity on the part of his wife Lelia, along with an unshakable belief that he can make a difference. I can only hope that anyone harbouring envy at Salgado’s accomplishments will see such feelings replaced by respectful awe.
To conclude, I will ask two questions:
- Which other activist-photographer has brought more attention to such a range of causes and plights?
- Isn’t it in the answer to that question that we should couch discussions of the morality associated with Salgado’s aesthetic?