With a new exhibition featuring unpublished prints from the burning oil fields of Kuwait, Sebastião Salgado tells Keith Wilson why he is devoting more time to reviewing his life and earlier work
The ‘world’s greatest living photographer’ looks back
Acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest photographers living today, Sebastião Salgado is known for the epic scale of his photo projects, which involve years of planning and editing; a painstaking devotion to the creation of books as heavy as coffee tables; and exhibitions that fill the world’s grandest museums. Salgado’s first great book,
Workers, published in 1993, is a prime example of his ambition: over a six-year period, the Brazilian-born photographer travelled across 23 countries, taking more than 10 thousand negatives of what playwright Arthur Miller described as “the pain, beauty and brutality of the world of work on which everything rests”. For Salgado, who also wrote the text accompanying the 350 black-and-white photographs,
Workers was “a farewell to a world of manual labour that is slowly disappearing, and a tribute to those men and women who still work as they have for centuries”.
Before discovering photography, Salgado grew up on a cattle ranch in Brazil, then moved to Paris in the 1960s to study economics at university. After graduating, he joined the International Coffee Organisation in London as a macroeconomist. Student politics, economics and the role of manual labour provided the inspiration for
Workers. He recalls: “I made my studies as an economist, I made studies of the macro economy, and I made studies of Marxism where proletarians were important. So, you know what I wished to do? I started with the proletarians and went to photograph the workers of this planet over many years.”
Salgado’s lens accentuated the harsh and grim reality of the working lives of shipbreakers, cane cutters, steel makers, miners and fishermen, while also bestowing a nobility and stoicism onto his subjects that left no doubt about his own political sympathies. He explains: “You see,
“I love very much to work on a long-term project where it is possible for me to put myself inside”
everything that I did was linked to my preoccupations with my way of life, from the studies that I made from my political orientation. I love very much to work on a long-term project where it is possible for me to put myself inside – to have a dedication, a concentration and identification with the things that I’m looking at photographing.”
A BURNT-OUT LANDSCAPE
Workers covered far more than impoverished manual labour in the developing world: Salgado also went underground to document the excavations of the Channel Tunnel, and to the oil-drenched deserts of Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. Of the dangerous assignments undertaken during his career, this was one of the most perilous, as he witnessed the seemingly unstoppable inferno of more than 700 oil wells set ablaze by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops. While photographing the firefighters, Salgado captured a burnt-out landscape still littered with cluster bombs and the scorched remains of camels, beneath a sky filled with acrid black smoke and soot; the sweltering temperatures were so intense that one of his lenses warped.
It is only in the past year that he has returned to this body of work to reveal the unpublished frames accompanying those now-iconic prints of exhausted firemen. “This is a story I made 26 years ago,” he recalls. “I had an assignment with The New York Times Magazine and we published some of them.”
Seven of the Kuwait photos were also published in Workers, but the contact sheets and negatives remained undisturbed as Salgado became immersed in a succession of epic publications: Terra (1997), Migrations (2000), Africa (2010), and the grandest of them all, Genesis (2013).
He continues: “Last year I made a decision: I must look again at this story. I am sure I have an interesting set of pictures. I looked at my contact sheets and I saw that I have a set of pictures that was reasonable, and so I went to my publisher.”
Salgado’s re-examination of his contact sheets turned up 83 exposures for Kuwait: A Desert on Fire, published in 2016 by Taschen, and now exhibited at La Photographie Galerie in Brussels. “About 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the pictures have not been published before,” he says.
DIGITAL CONTACT SHEETS
Salgado depicts the world in black and white, but in his early days he shot many magazine assignments in colour while working for the Paris-based agencies Sygma and Gamma. “It was necessary for me to survive, and I photographed in colour; but I am not a colour photographer. I do not see things in colour.” For Salgado, colour is an unwanted distraction. By photographing in black and white, he believes he can better understand the subject he is photographing, and construct a photo story to match his vision.
He cites another, more practical reason for eschewing colour: “In colour, it was slides that we were photographing at the time; and when you select the two or three that are the good pictures of the few, you put the others aside and you lose all the sequence of the article, and you have a very short story. In my journey to photograph Kuwait, I selected 10 or 20 pictures that I liked the most and I left the others. But now I can come back, and on my contact sheet everything is there. Because all that I have photographed is in black and white, I have all my films, all my contact sheets, and I have everything. It is my life that is there.”
Salgado’s photography is primarily film-based, but the making of
marked his switch to digital capture, and the beginning of the digitalisation of his archives.
Although he uses digital capture, Salgado upholds an analogue style of working, producing digital contact sheets and making test prints of his chosen exposures. He explains: “I do a contact sheet. I cannot edit in a computer, I edit my pictures with a loupe and we choose; then my assistant makes for me the work prints, and I choose, and we print like this.”
Salgado’s passion for black-andwhite printing is also matched by his
devotion to depth of field. Look at any of his photographs and there is so much front-to-back sharpness and so many finely focused areas in the frame that you can immediately see another reason to shoot in black and white and thereby reduce, as he says, “all the flashy colours, the red, the blue, the green” to shades of grey.
“Yes, I love depth of field,” he says. “I like to have the volume – like life gives me the volume, my eyes give me the volume. I like to work very clear and I prefer to close my diaphragm, to work in f/16, f/19; because it is beautiful to see the separation, the spaces all inside the picture. I like to photograph large. There is a lot of information inside my pictures. To have information I must give space, and to give space I must give depth of field.”
PASSION & INFLUENCE
The transformation of Salgado the economist to Salgado the photographer would not have happened if it wasn’t for Lélia, his wife of 50 years, who used a camera to help with her architectural studies. “It was 1970 when my wife bought a camera, and I looked for the first time inside a viewfinder, and for me it was so amazing. It was just fabulous. Fantastic.”
From that moment, he says, photography “made a total invasion of my life”. He acquired a darkroom and learned to print. After a few years, the passion for photography overwhelmed his professional work as an economist, and he decided “to drop everything to become a photographer”.
Lélia’s early career as an architect funded many of
Salgado’s first tentative steps as a photographer. Today, he is devoting more time to examining his earliest pictures, from the days when Lélia and he were first establishing themselves in Paris. “I have some incredible things that I forgot I had photographed,” he says. “I am looking at my life, and it is so moving. We made so many things together, we have suffered together, we have so much pleasure together, one life together.” He pauses before then declaring: “The oddest thing is I want to die before her because I don’t know, if she should die before me, how will I live without her? I’m 73 years old and Lélia is 70 and we are alive, but probably the most important thing in my life was the day I met Lélia. If my wife had not bought this camera, most probably you would not have a photographer called Sebastião Salgado: you would have an economist instead.”
Given the discussion of mortality and his current fascination with revisiting the photographs of his past, I ask Salgado what he believes will be his greatest legacy. “I have no legacy,” he responds without hesitation. “You see, my photography is my life; it’s my way of life. If people, after I disappear, use my photography as a reference of the moment that I lived, OK, that can become a legacy, but now I cannot speak about legacy. I can speak only about my way of life.
“Photography is my way of life. It is my motivation to live; my motivation is to photograph. That is it.”
Kuwait: A Desert on Fire is showing at La Photographie Galerie, Brussels, until 16th September (www.laphotographie-galerie.com). The book of the same name is published by Taschen (www.taschen.com).
Fortress of Solitude, Antarctica, 2005 (from Genesis, 2013)