Sebastião Salgado’s Eternal Images of Humanity on the Move

In his 2014 film, The Salt of the Earth, the German director Wim Wenders describes the first time he saw a picture taken by Sebastião Salgado.

“I had no idea who took it, but whoever it was had to be both a great photographer and an adventurer.

Adventurer’ certainly feels like an appropriate description of this Brazilian master; a photography veteran who has spent over 40 years documenting people at the frayed – and sometimes indistinct – edges of humanity.

And yet the term seems to discard the compassion at the creative epicentre of Salgado’s work – he is a photographer who has been drawn to danger and suffering, but remains on assignment to inspire positive behavioural change.

Salgado Image 4 Rwanda
The refugee camps in the “Zone Turquoise”. Rwanda. 1995 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

Looking at his work up to now, it’s perfectly plausible that Salgado would have made an equally dramatic impact had he followed his initial career path of economics. Having obtained a masters from the University of São Paulo, his first job after moving to Paris was for the International Coffee Organisation – a programme initiated with the United Nations to enhance cooperation between nations that consume, distribute and produce coffee.

Indeed, his more recent major projects have been decisively mission-based: Genesis, Salgado’s self-acclaimed ‘magnum opus’ is a photography series chiefly taken between 2004 and 2011, and attempts to present the unblemished faces of nature and humanity.

The collection has formed both a giant ‘Sumo’ book (it is the size of a desk) as well as an international touring exhibition, and covers landscapes, wildlife and indigenous communities. Genesis is intended to form a path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature.

Salgado Image 2 Mozambique
A returning Mozambican refugee makes her way across the half destroyed Dona Ana Bridge over the Zambeze River. Mutarara, Mozambique. 1994 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

Alongside this, Salgado’s other ecological project, the Instituto Terra, was instigated with his wife and creative collaborator, Lélia Wanick Salgado, and has seen the once barren Salgado family ranch replanted and transformed into a lush, verdant ecosystem. In 1998, they formalised this by turning this location – situated in the Minas Gerais region of South-Eastern Brazil – into a nature reserve and national park. The Instituto itself is dedicated to reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

However, the recent European Migrant Crisis that has brought his Exodus series – initially released as hardback in 1999 – into sharp relief. The context is obvious: Since 2015, an estimated 1.2m migrants have fled the unstable regions of the Middle East and North Africa to escape violence and persecution, in what has become the largest European movement of people since World War 2.

As Salgado notes in his preface to the new edition: “Europe was totally unprepared for the immense wave of migrants and refugees from the Middle East who swept into the region in 2015. Overnight, the human tragedies in far-off lands that Europeans could safely overlook now reached their streets and the waters that lap their shores.

Salgado Image 3 Afghanistan
A few days after the Taliban seized Kabul, women were forbidden to show their faces or to have any activity outside their homes except collecting food and medicine at distribution centres, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1996 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

“As always, the catalysts that set in motion sudden movements of peoples are to be found far from the cities and countries where migrants eventually seek solace. In this case, the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq sparked the initial radicalisation of Muslim populations in a dozen lands. This was followed by the sadly misnamed Arab Spring that offered the false promise of hope to countries long under dictatorial rule. And when these revolutions failed everywhere except Tunisia, many Muslims looked to Europe as their safe haven of choice.”

Whilst the European mainland may be comparatively safe, the journey itself can be ruthless, with families often parting with life savings to board hopelessly overloaded, ramshackle rafts skippered by under qualified opportunists.

Salgado himself is no stranger to the mortal risks that accompany this work – the photographer claiming in 2013 that he “started to be attacked by [his] own Staphylococcus’ (bacteria) towards the end of his time working on Exodus.

“I saw in Rwanda total brutality. I saw deaths by thousands every day. I lost my faith in our species, I didn’t believe it was possible for us to live any longer […] I started to have infection everywhere. When I made love with my wife, I had no sperm that came out of me. I had blood.

“I went to see a friend’s doctor in Paris, and told him that I was completely sick. He made a long examination, and told me ‘Sebastian, you are not sick, your prostate is perfect. What happened is you saw so many deaths that you are dying. You must stop.”’

Salgado Image 5 Bosnia
Refugee from the Zepa enclave. Kladanj, central Bosnia. 1995 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

In this regard, Exodus could be said to mark the very limit of human endurance for witnessing suffering. It covers Salgado’s six long years spent with migrant peoples in over 35 countries, documenting Latin Americans entering the United States, Jews leaving the former Soviet Union, Kosovars fleeing into Albania, and – appropriately – the first ‘boat people’ of Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

And devastatingly, it covers the aforementioned nightmare of Rwandan refugees in the aftermath of a genocide that saw between 500k and 1m people slaughtered – by some estimates accounting for 20% of Rwanda’s total population.

It’s a collection that documents displacement on roads, in camps, in urban slums and the borders themselves, revealing a nomadic hinterland between war and peace.

And yet, it never feels exploitative or needlessly bombards the viewer with horror. The beautiful – yes beautiful – imagery of Exodus undoubtedly covers migration at the sharp end, but there is a detailed dignity woven into the fabric of the the collection. It is not just about destitution. It is the landscape of mass flux; the logistics of limbo.

It’s a collection that deserves the reissue and one that highlights this renewed focus on the desperate and unchanging plight of migrants and refugees all over the world. Indeed – in the freakish hyper-reality of 2016, where tragedy upon tragedy dominate news cycles, a collection like Exodus adds historical context to the global story of humanity on the move.

Salgado Image 6 Chimborazo
The men having migrated to the cities, the women carry their goods to the market of Chimbote. Region of Chimborazo © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images. Ecuador. 1998.

In this regard, the world-class curation of Lélia Wanick Salgado deserves mention – particularly in the handling of the images taken from the Bosnian conflict of the early 90s. Here we see a crisis that remains unprecedented in postwar Europe – an ethnic genocide happening in a strikingly familiar cultural landscape. These images appear to present a dystopian urban wasteland; one of grubby brutalism and lost languages.

These are the angriest images, ones which fire back at the mayhem in front of the lens. Again, Wim Wenders has salient words to describe Salgado’s practice here. “Having a photographer in front of your camera is different from filming anybody else – he will not just be there and act like himself, no – by profession he acts in response […] a man shoots back.”

But maybe the final word should go to Salgado himself, the photographer reflecting upon refugee crises at a time when the socio-economic mission of Exodus required defining.

“My hope is that, as individuals, as groups, as societies, we can pause and reflect on the human condition at the turn of the millennium. The dominant ideologies of the twentieth century – communism and capitalism – have largely failed us. Globalisation is presented to us as a reality, but not as a solution. Even freedom cannot alone address our problems without being tempered by responsibility, order, awareness. In its rawest form, individualism remains a prescription for catastrophe. We have to create a new regimen of coexistence.”

Find out more and buy the book here.