Se­bastião Sal­gado

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

Digital Camera World - - CONTENTS -

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.”


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.


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.”


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-ga­ The book of the same name is pub­lished by Taschen (

Fortress of Soli­tude, Antarc­tica, 2005 (from Gen­e­sis, 2013)

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