For all those who have wondered what happens to a famine when it leaves the front page or if children stop dying just because cameras stop recording, photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado provides an answer. Surprisingly, it’s not a completely sad revelation, as we see in “An Uncertain Grace: Photographs by Sebastiao Salgado,” an exhibition of more than 120 images from 1977 to the present. Organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the show is now presented by UCLA’s Grunwald Center at the Frederick W. Wight Art Gallery (to Jan. 27). It’s a penetrating, emotional, romantic and exhilarating look at lives shaped by survival by an artist who finds beauty and dignity amid the desperate poverty of Third World nations.
This collection of images was gathered from scattered locations around the world, but it has an amazing depth. It’s the kind of firsthand thoroughness that can only be harvested from prolonged stays in troubled areas. Salgado frequently spends weeks in refugee camps where other photojournalists may work for a couple of hours. Instead of providing one or two touching images on newsworthy subjects, Salgado, in dozens of photographs, builds a cumulative portrait of a dignified people sustained by faith. This subjective immersion gives his black and white pictures an uninhibited intimacy. It also softens, though it can’t completely mitigate, the camera’s voyeuristic intrusion on private moments of anguish over an emaciated child’s slow death or hopelessness brought on by overwork or starvation.
Salgado came to photography after beginning a career as an economic adviser to developing nations. At 29, while working on assignment in Africa, he made some photographs with his wife’s camera that persuaded him of the power for social change inherent in revealing the faces of the people behind disaster and poor public policy. Since then, he has roamed the world, mixing newspaper and magazine assignments with photography work for relief groups, such as the all-volunteer Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which treats people in remote areas when catastrophe strikes. Ironically, his work came to global prominence with a single, dynamic image that was published worldwide showing Ronald Reagan and James Brady felled in John W. Hinckley’s assassination attempt.
Salgado’s photojournalistic mission on behalf of the invisible people of the Third World recalls the emotional, potent images of Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs of migrant workers taken for the Farm Securities Administration, but he is more directly related to Henri Cartier-Bresson, founder of Magnum Photos, the agency through which Salgado works. Both Salgado and Cartier-Bresson favor somewhat narrative, dramatic images but seem equally aware that they are conjuring up distinctly edited versions of reality. Salgado’s pictures, with their emphasis on the self-respect lighting the faces of tired sugar cane cutters in Cuba, or the athletic beauty of bodies struggling on slippery ground in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine, cast these men and their labor in a noble light.
As a contradiction to the Western notion that heavy exertion is always without dignity, Salgado’s photographs are powerfully didactic. Yet they are also decidedly biased, ignoring extended social conditions such as the alcoholism and crime that are also part of the men’s marginal existence. But Salgado is giving the faceless--known only to developed countries by the depths of their depravation--a more rounded identity. Though he now lives in Paris, he was born and raised in Brazil and is forever aware of the “otherness” that the poor rural peasant feels within that country’s social structure. Because he spends time with the people he photographs, he knows them as people, not simply statistics. His pictures reveal their unwavering, stoic endurance of the harshness of their environment. Their labor flames with Social Realism’s brand of evangelism. The depths of their faith has an almost mystic aura: Children in procession are more angels than mortals; a father holding his child has the same soulful eyes as the Christ poster on the wall beside him.
Discussing only the social content of Salgado’s photographs leaves unspoken the power of the images themselves, however. Each picture is an arresting composition that uses the full potency of light and dark to create mood and sculptural mass. His compositional skill is so finely developed that it is frequently difficult to remember that these pictures are taken spontaneously in the most isolated of areas, under challenging conditions. Were it not for the harsh reality of the subjects, the elegance of the forms and the beauty of the photographs would be a pure delight.
Salgado’s skill as an artist illuminates the lives of the Third World poor. His photographs are elegant, thought-provoking statements that repeatedly make issues like starvation or poverty confrontational, instead of abstract. It’s not pity you feel when you see a an emaciated Ethiopian father carrying the skin and bones body of his child into the refugee center, it’s an incredible sense of waste. Their humanity is commanding, their capacity to survive awesome.
It has often been observed that adversity brings out the best in all of us. Perhaps, but it also brings out anger. The subtext to Salgado’s photographs, only peripherally hinted at in the abbreviated information appended to each photo, is the political shenanigans and economic policies responsible for so many of these “natural” disasters/social realities. Salgado doesn’t make a point of damning the infrastructures his work necessarily describes. He simply lets the image and a few facts open up questions.
As potent as this kind of photojournalism is, it is also singularly absent from much of the media coverage that makes up the daily news. An AIDS patient here, a homeless family there, the news skims its subjects with sound bites and on-the-spot superficial coverage. It’s been ages since Americans were confronted with the innumerable, searing pictures that unmasked the futility of Vietnam or the desperation of Bangladesh. Only a few of Salgado’s beautiful, haunting pictures from the Ethiopian Sahel were published in Newsweek and the New York Times at the time they were made. The rest were considered “too tragic” to be marketable by U.S. literary publishers or gallery owners, so the complete series was never seen in this country, until now. Time may have rendered these news images “safe” for American sensibilities, but they are still potent. And their breadth of involvement offers a dynamic model for art working with a social conscience.
“An Uncertain Grace: Photographs by Sebastiao Salgado,” Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, (213) 825-1461), to Jan. 27. Closed Mondays.