A portrait of the Brazilian photo artist
Sebastião Salgado is not only one of the most famous photographers in the world, he is also a humanist, conservationist and since October 2019 winner of the Peace Prize. His works show black and white photography on a new level; in it he internalizes the suffering of the world and creates awareness of the dark side of humanity.
Salgado as photographer
Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado was born on February 8, 1944 in Aimorés, a small town in Brazil with a population of 16,000. In his twenties, Salgado turned his back on his homeland, which had now been taken over by the military dictatorship. Together with his wife, the pianist Lélia Deluiz Wanick, he is drawn to Paris; he is doing his doctorate in the field of economics and is starting a professional career as an economist. Salgado discovered his love for photography in the 1980s when he first traveled to Africa for work. Back in Paris, he decides to devote himself entirely to his newly discovered passion as a freelancer. In the years that followed, he always returned to his native Brazil to complete his first major project: a series of pictures of the gold miners in the Brazilian Serra Pelada, the unadorned documentary about the largest open-air mine in the world. The pictures become evidence of violence and poverty, they show the inhumane conditions under which 50,000 people dug, hacked and lusted for gold for years. Salgado gives the mine workers a face, makes their suffering visible – and ensures that the mine must be closed.
Salgado as humanist
His work as a war photographer, the terrifying scenes of the genocide in Rwanda or the Iraq war leave their mark: Salgado not only seems to capture the injustice of the world, he also seems to anchor it more and more deeply inside – until he can hardly bear the suffering can. He becomes active himself, works for African development aid, begins close cooperation with the MSF organization, makes nature conservation his personal concern. The early escape from his homeland in the nineties encouraged him to photograph people on the run in Africa, South America, Asia and the former Yugoslavia; to capture their pain and loss experience. The anthology on Migrants, which Salgado shared with the world public for the first time in 2000, is still one of the main works of the Brazilian photo artist. In 2016, when the rising refugee crisis caused unrest around the world, Salgado had the work reissued under the title Exodus. It shows that the suffering has not disappeared over the years; it only appears on new faces.
❞ Salgado not only seems to capture the injustice of the world, he also seems to anchor it more and more deeply inside – until he can hardly bear the suffering can. ❝
left: sand dunes in Algeria, 2009 / right: marine iguana in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, 2004 / © Sebastião Salgado
Salgado as environmentalist
While Salgado’s earlier works focus on the suffering of mankind, he increasingly dedicates his later existence as an artist to nature photography. In 2013 the illustrated book Genesis appeared, which tried to grasp the fascination and beauty of nature and the grandeur of the most varied landscapes. Genesis is a wake-up call, an appeal to look at, but also a tribute to the power of nature. “With Genesis, I followed the romantic dream of finding – and showing – an untouched world that is too often hidden from our sight and unreachable for us (…)”, he writes in the foreword to the book. In the middle of the debate about climate change Salgado will be awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2019, as the first photographer, but above all as an artist, who always shows himself politically with his works, who is not afraid to openly address suffering and inhumanity and who consciously works for peace – for humanity and nature.
Salgado probably saw much more suffering in his photographic work than a single person can bear; and yet, maybe for that very reason, he gave a face and a voice to those who should not be heard and seen. This makes Salgado not only one of the most important photographers of our time, but also one of the few great keepers of creation.
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