Eerily Beautiful,

somehow preserving the dignified suffering of these workers while also capturing pictorial qualities evocative of Hieronymus Bosch, as a mass of humanity appears in a losing struggle against a landscape that is sure to defeat them.

Sebastião Salgado

Portrait of Sebastião Salgado

• by Marc Glassman •

Published June 18th, 2015

Issue 98, Summer 2015

In 1973, while sitting in a rowboat with his wife Lélia and working as an economist in London, Salgado made the life-changing decision to quit his job and pursue a newfound passion: photography. Now a world-renowned social documentary photographer, Salgado never entirely parted ways with his background in economics.

“When you go to a country, you must know a little bit of the economy of this country, of the social movements, of the conflicts, of the history of this country—you must be part of it,”

This desire to understand, and thereby to honor, his subjects is reflected in Salgado’s award-winning black-and-white documentary series—including “Workers, “Migrations,” and most recently, “Genesis”—which shed light on issues of poverty, oppression, and climate change threatening displaced communities around the world.

Siberia Russia

The Nenets, indigenous people in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District of Russia. Inside the Acrtic Circle. Yamal Peninsula. Siberia. Russia. March and April 2011

How has your original background as an economist informed your work as a photographer?

My wife and I teach at a school of photography in Japan, in Tokyo, and one thing that I tell the young people is to go to university and study a bit of anthropology, a little bit of sociology, a bit of economy—geopolitics—in order to understand their society. I had this big chance to be an economist, but what is economy? The kind of economy that I worked with—macroeconomy, political economy—is quantified sociology. That meant a lot for my understanding of society. When you go to photograph, you have to understand what it is you are photographing. When you go to a country, you must know a little bit of the economy of this country, of the social movements, of the conflicts, of the history of this country—you must be part of it. And when you have the opportunity at the university for this compact preparation, you have much better tools than others that don’t have them. I know this because I worked for many press agencies—I worked for Gamma, Sygma, and for 15 years in Magnum—and my colleagues that had this university preparation were much better, had better tools than the others. That means economics for me was essential: it gave me the opportunity to do an analysis, a synthesis of the situations I wanted to photograph.

We’re about the same age, and of course I remember the time of the 1960s and the radicalism that many of us had in this period. The photographer Gordon Parks once said that with the camera he had found the choice of the proper weapon for what he was going to do. It wasn’t to kill people but it was to expose what was wrong in the world—for him it was segregation. I’m wondering whether for you, especially in those early years, you were trying to make a critique.

I came from an underdeveloped country with huge social problems, and with a lot of injustice that happened, because we had no chance to protect our products. I’m from a region that produces a lot of iron ore in Brazil, which is a huge country with a lot of natural resources. When I was a child, 70 tons of iron ore was exported for 70 dollars. Today, the price for one ton is around 80 dollars, and a few days ago it was a hundred and twenty dollars a ton. Compare that to the price of oil, what the price of oil was for many years. When you see a kilo of coffee, the guy who is working, producing the coffee—he goes to work at seven or six in the morning, he works until the end of the day, 12 hours a day, sometimes more—he has no shoes, his kid has no education, he doesn’t have proper housing, he doesn’t have a car or a bank account, and yet he works as hard as anyone here. The difference is that the product he produces has no value. The value of these products was not fixed where they were produced; they were fixed in Chicago, in London, where we fix the prices of all material products, and we always gave a negative price. It wasn’t a positive price because these guys pay with their health, the education of their children, with no housing. This is where I came from, and when I made my pictures, when I show the people from my side of the planet in my pictures, I show their dignity. I show that they work like we work, that they love like we love, that they live nice lives like we have nice lives here. That we can understand that we are the same.

Other Americas

Published November 12th 1986

Salgado's numerous trips through Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico between 1977 and 1984 to document the shifting religious and political climate in the region, especially as reflected in Latin America's rural cultures and traditional lifestyles.

Guatemala from Other Americas

Guatemala, 1978, from 'Other Americas'

Brasil from Other Americas

Brasil 1980, from 'Other Americas'

Could you talk about your book Other Americas? It feels very much informed by this time and this meaning of what work is like and what life is like in South and Central America.

It’s a good question for you to ask, because on Friday I am going back to Paris, and Monday I am going to Italy to reprint Other Americas. Thirty years after, we are having the book come out again—it will be published in New York by Aperture Foundation, in France, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, Brazil. Other Americas for me was very special. You see, I left Brazil in 1969, and I was forbidden from returning to my country because of the dictatorship they took away our passports. In a month, I already had a huge wish to go back to Brazil, but there was no way, so I started to go to the neighbouring countries—they were not quite the same as Brazil, but they looked like it—so I went to Paraguay, to Bolivia, to Peru, Ecuador, and after a while I went to the others—to Guatemala, Mexico—and eventually to almost all of Latin America. And I went to see them, I lived with them, I went to their mountains and valleys. And at that time I had no money to hire a car or to stay in big hotels. I went by bus; I worked of my life. I spent long months then, because I had no money to go and then come back.

I was thinking about how your wife Lélia gave you a camera, and I’m wondering what your reaction was—was it just immediate love?

Let me tell you one thing: she never gave me a camera. I stole it from her. It’s a bit different. Lélia was studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the school of architecture, and it was necessary for her to buy a camera to take pictures of architecture. We bought this camera, and I looked inside it, and my life completely changed. It became my camera. I started to use it and photography made a total invasion in my life. Probably if she had not bought this camera, it would never have happened, because that was very late in my life. I was 27 years old when I first looked through the viewfinder of a camera and took a picture. Who knows? When I was a child, we started to have huge inflation in Brazil—2,000 per cent a year, an amazing amount—and a lot of farmers sold their farms. And when they sold their farms, two or three years later the money would not be enough to buy a bicycle. And my father told me, “Sebastião, if I had sold this farm when you were a kid, you wouldn’t be a famous photographer in Paris—we would probably be living in a slum in Belo Horizonte.” And perhaps if she hadn’t bought the camera, it wouldn’t have happened either.


Published 1993

More then those of any other living photographer, Sebastiao Salgado's images of the world's poor stand in tribute to the human condition. Salgado defines his work as "militant photography" dedicated to "the best comprehension of man"; over the decades he has bestowed great dignity on the most isolated and neglected among us-- from famine-stricken refugees in the Sahel to the indigenous peoples of South America. "Workers," form an archaeological perspective of the activities that have defined hard work from the Stone Age through the Industrial Revolution to the present. Yet its ultimate message is one of endurance and hope: entire Indian families serve as construction crews to build a dam that will bring life to their land, and laborers using contemporary technology connect England and France through Eurotunnel.

Workers at Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991

Workers place a new wellhead in an oil well that had been damaged by Iraqi explosives. Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991

Kuwait, 1991

Kuwait, 1991

Rajasthan canal works, India, 1989

Rajasthan canal works, India, 1989

Rajasthan canal works, India, 1989

Rajasthan canal works, India, 1989

Like Other Americas, Workers was a massive project that eventually resulted in a book. Can you tell me about the roots of the project?

When I did Workers, I was an economist and a Marxist. The working class for me was the most important element of industrial and agricultural production. In economy you create a function of production with capital, technology and labour. But labour created capital, and technology is the materialization of millions, billions of hours of the movement of workers. What is a robot? When a robot goes to mount a piece, it’s the movement of the arm of the worker that created the machine. That technology is born from the worker—the worker is the most important part of the production function.

Then we started to see that the quality of work started to change, because you had intelligent machines that started to come to the production line. Robots are what? They’re computers. Everything started to change in production. It was not that the working class disappeared, but that it was no longer the same working class—the work was specialized, the workers were younger and trained on these machines. And we started to see that, for example, in France, a huge amount of the steel industry disappeared, and it reappeared in China or Brazil. The production of cars—before, a car was a screw-by-screw handmade object. Every part of the car was handmade. No more. The robot would lift this part, put in a bolt, put it back—no longer even a man sitting in a machine controlled these things.

We started to see these things happen, and my wife and I conceived of a book that would be an homage to the working class, in the age when it was no longer possible to see the work involved in producing a rope without watching it being displaced geographically to India, to China, to Brazil. I spent five years on this project—I had a huge identification with it.


Published 2013

Genesis project record landscapes and people unchanged in the devastating onslaught of modern society and development. Taken over the course of an epic eight-year expedition, the images are divided into five broad geographic chapters: Planet South, Sanctuaries, Africa, Northern Spaces, Amazonia, and Pantanal.

Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Channel. At sea level, earlier flotation levels are clearly visible where the ice has been polished by the ocean’s constant movement. High above, a shape resembling a castle tower has been carved by wind erosion and detached pieces of ice. The Antarctic Peninsula, 2005 / photo by Sebastião Salgado, courtesy © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

Chinstrap penguins on an icebery located between Zavodovski and Visokoi islands. South sandwich islands. November and December 2009

The Kalahari Desert in Botswana may look arid and hostile, but it is paradise to the San people, among the earliest inhabitants of africa. However, in several waves of evictions from 1997 to 2002, Botswana's government has driven them from their ancestral land. The San people aking fire the traditional way- twiliring a stick of trumpet thorn against another piece of western rhigozum hardwood

Cattle camp of Kei. The Dinka choose the best bulls for matting and identify them by giving a distinct shape to the animals' horns as they grow. Southern Sudan. February and March 2006

With Genesis, which you’ve been working on for the past decade, there’s a real change in your photography and your subject matter. Now you’re looking at nature and ecology, whereas before you were working at the means of production, always with a radical critique. How do you feel about what you’re shooting now and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Salgado: When I was finishing the shooting of Migration, I participated in a few stories that were very dramatic in my life—mostly in Rwanda, where I saw the brutality and the violence. I started to become very sick—my doctor said, “Sebastião, if you don’t stop, you will die.” So in a month, we stopped and went back to Brazil, and at this time my parents were becoming very old. I am the only man in a family of eight; I have seven sisters. My parents made the decision, with the agreement of my sisters, to keep the farm for me—the farm that I grew up on, the farm that was very important to my life.

So we received this farm, but when we did, it was ecologically destroyed. And my wife said, “Sebastião, you always told me that you grew up in a paradise—let’s rebuild the paradise. Let’s plant the rainforest that was here before.” And we started an environmental project. We had to plant more than two million trees, because it was a huge area. And we built this project. Now, I go back to hear the birds, feel the water, see the trees. I was so enthusiastic about this, which came from my great wish to see the most pristine part of the planet.

I thought that the planet had just a few pristine places left. But in the end, after research, I discovered that 46 per cent of the planet is [the same] as the day of Genesis. We worked for over eight years—I say ‘we’ because my wife was with me most of the time—and I photographed the nature, I photographed the other animals, and I discovered that everything is alive. A landscape is alive; this mountain is as alive as I am; all of these trees are as alive as I am—very alive, very rational. They are inside a live system that includes them. And that, for me, during those eight years, was the fabulous discovery of Genesis, but it is not that I became a landscape photographer or an animal photographer. Parallel to this, I was photographing another story, a completely human story—the book will be coming out in May—about coffee. I photographed for it in 2002, and I finished at the end of 2014.

Advice for aspiring photographers?

If you’re young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy, geopolitics. Study so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph.”

What becomes so obvious in Salgado’s early work is that his pictures couldn’t exist without his commitment to social justice. What he photographs is defined by what he believes in. His pictures are so strong because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Go and study... so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing.”

Gold miners of Serra Pelada, Brazil / Workers