by Simon James
Based on Interview with Sebastião Salgado, Paris, January 25, 2001Sebastiao Salgado is 57 years old. The sixth of eight children, he was born in Aimores, Brazil, on sth February 1944 and has seven sisters. He says, "We were born inside the rainforest. We had radio but no TV and, although the railway passed through Aimores, in the rainy season there were no trains because the bridges washed away. Sometimes the town was isolated for two months, but we didn't think of this as a problem. We weren't living in a modern economic system. This was my father's farm where I was born, half of it was covered by the rainforest and on the rest we produced rice, beans, meat, milk; and what we were producing was for consumption, and the excess was going to the market. We were very isolated. My first contact with a real town was when I went to Vitoria, on the coast, with my sister when I was 16 years old. A town of 100,000 people seemed enormous to us. My father wanted me to become a lawyer, but when I was a kid Brazil was more than 80 percent rural. When I came to the big town it was the beginning of the big migration to the cities, and I wanted to be part of the economic development going on around me. My wish was to be an economist. I began my studies in Vitoria and then went on to Sao Paulo University."
After finishing his degree Salgado worked for a period as an economist for the state government of Sao Paulo but this was a time of political upheaval in Brazil. In 1969, having come to the attention of the then military government for their political views, Salgado, and his wife Lelia who he had married in 1967, went into exile in Paris.
Popular mythology has it that Salgado took his first photographs while working in Africa but he explains they actually happened in Paris. Lelia was an architectural student and had bought a camera to make pictures for her studies. It was a Pentax Spotmatic and he remembers it with great affection. "It was the first time I had looked inside a camera and for me it was incredible. I had a big, big interest in this. It was June 1970, and Lelia bought it with a 50 mm lens, and just one week later we bought a 28 mm and a 200 mm. These were real excitements, allowing us to look at things in a different way. A friend of ours began to teach us how to photograph and how to develop the films and it totally invaded my life. At the time I was writing my Ph.D. thesis here in France. I had my darkroom, and to make money for my own photography I processed films for other students. Inside a month I had a big wish to abandon it all and become a photographer."
Economics was, however, to win out for a while longer. In 1971, having completed but not submitted the thesis for his doctorate, Salgado took a job as an economist based in London with the International Coffee organization. He made his first trips to Africa through this job which associated him with six countries: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Zaire and Angola. He says, "I took my first African pictures in Rwanda: at the time in color. At that moment I didn't believe I would become a real photographer. I was working for an international organization and I had an invitation to go to the World Bank in Washington. In my mind I wanted to be a real photographer but it seemed I was to be an economist. But when I returned to London from Africa and saw these pictures I knew I would become a photographer, that I could not become anything else, and I started to prepare. Living in London I started to go to the Photographer's Gallery to see shows, buy photography books and read how to develop films better, how to expose films better. I began to work really seriously. In 1973 I resigned from my job in London, came back to Paris and I started my life of photography. I decided to do my first story in Africa. A friend lent me the money for the trip and I went to Niger, where there was a big drought and major starvation. We went for more than a month and I made the story, and then went back to Paris and took it to the magazines. It was published and from there we started my life of photography." From the outset Salgado's photographic career included Lelia, who went with him on the first trip to Niger despite being pregnant with their first son.
"At the end of 1973, beginning of 1974, I went to Ethiopia to do my second story. The World Council of Churches had used pictures from my first trip to raise funds, and now they paid for me to go to Ethiopia. From then I began to work freelance, I joined the Sygma agency in 1974 and then went to the civil war in Mozambique. In 1975,1 left Sygma and moved on to Gamma, which was my real school of photojournalism. In 1979, after four years in Gamma, I began to feel I was repeating myself. It seemed I had learned all I was going to. This for me was a problem, I came out of Gamma and thought about moving on to Contact, but to do this I would have had to send my negatives to their offices in New York. For me it was impossible to stay out of my negatives. I was thinking of returning to freelance when I was offered the opportunity to join Magnum as a nominee."
When looking at his work there can be little surprise that Salgado found a home for a few years in Magnum. It was also in 1979 that he formed a friendship with the then 27 year old and equally dynamic, picture editor of the New York Sunday Times Magazine: Fred Ritchin. In 1980 Salgado had been on Magnum assignment shooting for the book, A Day in the Life of Australia, and had decided to return to France via the USA. Ritchin had first commissioned Salgado through Magnum to produce a story on Ivo Pitan-guy, a Brazilian plastic surgeon, and had been impressed with the breadth of his coverage. Ritchin was now commissioning a story about President Reagan's first 100 days in the White House and was keen to use a photographer who was untarnished by what he described as "the myth making surrounding the 1980 presidential campaign." Salgado, not an American and just returning from the Australian outback, seemed perfect, and he was duly commissioned and went off to borrow a suit and tie from friends at Magnum.
On Salgado's second day he accompanied the President to the Washington Hilton Hotel where he was due to give a speech. Outside the hotel after the speech Salgado says he was initially unperturbed by popping sounds as President Reagan made towards his car. He continues "I had three cameras each some way into a film: a Leica M5 with 50 mm lens and flash, then two Nikons, one with 28 mm lens and the other 180 mm lens. When I saw the President I made one shot as he came out; and when I heard the tack, tack, tack, tack I first thought it was fireworks: because in Latin America there were often fireworks at political events. But I immediately realized it was not, it was very fast and very strange but I made a shot as the President was moving. The agents protecting the President's car knew me because I was inside the trap with them, and I began to shoot with the 28 mm and with the 50 mm from the Leica. The President was pushed inside the car but his aide was lying shot on the ground, and Hinckley, the assassin, was grabbed. It went very very fast: later when we looked at the television footage we discovered it had taken place over less than one minute and I had taken 76 pictures. At the time of making them I was shooting by intuition and didn't know if I had a good shot or not. But afterwards when we developed the Kodachromes, there was a good sequence. Magnum dispatched the pictures to magazines all around the world, and the income from this allowed us to put money aside to think about more projects. It allowed me to finish shooting Other Americas, which was published in 1984."
For his personal projects Salgado works almost exclusively in black and white. He explains, "I was never really a color photographer. I had to work in color because magazines assign you in color, but I always shot in black and white as well. On assignment I usually had two cameras for color but always another loaded with black and white."
Talking animatedly about the manner in which the real black-and-white photographer previsualizes the appearance of the print at the time of shooting, he very much appreciates the increased control of contrast available to the black-and-white photographer and the reduced need for flash, which he regards as intrusive. In pausing to reflect for a moment he also mentions the fact that working in black and white allows him to retain an element of craft within the photographic process. Considering so much of his work documents the skill and craftsmanship of the working man across the world, it comes as little surprise to hear that he values similar techniques within the craft of photography. He works exclusively with 35 mm cameras and always uses the same two films: Tri-X 400 and T-Max 3200. His pictures, however, are very much "made" rather than "taken." His darkroom technique, similarly to that of Lewis Hine and Eugene Smith, uses a form of "chemical composition" where images are sometimes overprinted and bleached back to draw the viewer's attention to specific areas.
A similarly considered technique can be evidenced in the way he approaches the making of a story. Salgado is known to spend long periods on his stories and pays considerable attention to detail in his approach to a story. An example of this would be his determination to arrive at the place where he is to work unobtrusively, feeling that before beginning to work it is imperative "to be accepted by reality." Salgado says he never poses people for his imagery although he concedes that people pose themselves on occasion for him and ask him to take their picture. Returning to the notion of being accepted by reality Salgado says, "It isn't always necessary to arrive on the workers' bus, but it is important to be true to the people: to be there from the morning until the evening. If you spend the time on a story things happen in front of you, like the argument between the soldier and the worker at the gold mine. The contact sheet shows how fast these events happen: two or three frames and it is finished. Nothing is posed: you must be there, in front of the thing, as it happens."
He is also not one to skimp on film and says he often shoots 200 rolls of film on a story. Previous writers looking at the structure and composition of his imagery have commented upon the almost biblical nature of his pictures. Salgado accepts this and in considering his ideas for composition refers to his cultural heritage and upbringing, saying that rather than coming from a northern, or European, tradition of picture making he comes from what he describes as a Baroque world that imbues form itself with a spirituality of its own.
Salgado today is probably best known for his great book, Workers. This monumental project attempted to document a contemporary archaeology of the increasingly few people across the globe who work with their hands. When questioned again on his compositional technique Salgado is happy to acknowledge the concerns of earlier photographers, of whom perhaps Eugene Smith is the most appropriate. Where Smith, however, was criticized for the manner in which he made heroes of working folk, we are now 30 years further down the line. Journalism, and the way it is perceived, has moved on. At the time of Smith, journalism struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to portray an objective view of the story it told. Today, by contrast, it is these very notions of objectivity that are distrusted and it is assumed that the journalist has a position upon the issue under discussion. Salgado happily acknowledges his early attraction to Marxist doctrine and the concept of productive work: be it either building a ship, to transport goods across the world, or later, on a beach in a different country, demolishing a ship in order to recycle it's metals for other uses. Workers, he is proud to emphasize, is a personal homage to a proletariat, his workers are indeed heroes, and in Salgado's mind the thing that binds them is the work that they do.
After Workers, he returned again to South America to regard the plight of the landless peasantry of Brazil, a group he identifies with very personally. Terra: Struggle of the Landless, published in 1997, to some extent marks a point where Salgado moved from the position of observer to that of activist. While Workers cast its eye upon the plight of individuals,Terra and his recent book, Migrations, steps back, taking a broader perspective of issues and causation, rather than regarding the plight of specific individuals caught up within more global events.
Salgado explains "When I went to photograph for Migrations it was a completely different thing. I was in total disappointment with what's happening on the planet. The relationship between poor and rich and the distribution of wealth. The violence of the migrations, the refugee camps, and I had to photograph this in a completely different way. The use of repetition, for example, seems completely appropriate because I needed to show that this was not just about one person, one family, one town or even one nation, but half of the planet. I wanted to provoke a discussion about what is going on."
Even today Salgado sees himself principally as a photojournalist. He acknowledges, however, that times are changing with regard to the manner in which the independent journalist, even of his stature, is able to operate. Funds to allow theWorkers series to progress were provided on an ongoing basis by a number of magazines but the publishing world has changed in recent years. Magazines today are at least as happy to employ his talents as they have been in the past but less interested in projects that won't bear final fruit for years to come. Salgado's response has been to look toward the corporate and advertising world to generate funding for the long-term personal projects which remain at the forefront of his mind.
Over the course of the past ten years the environment itself, and more specifically the rainforest where he was born, has increasingly become an issue to Salgado. Conscious of the relationship between the people and the land in the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil, he and Lelia have now established a foundation which buys land, plants trees upon it and also operates an education center encouraging sustainable, environmentally friendly industry within the region. On the day I visited Salgado in his bright canal-side studio in Paris, he was busily preparing a series of slides for a lecture he was to give in Italy the following week. Before pausing to do the interview he took me through the slide sequence showing graphically the vast amount of rainforest devastated by slash and burn farming techniques and the manner in which the foundation, albeit in a small way, is attempting to at least begin to redress the balance. Salgado is the first to acknowledge the vastness of the project but seems personally unbothered by notions of size and more concerned with making a start.
Walking away down the Paris canal, I found my thoughts returning to Salgado's remarks about his notions of a baroque approach to the construction of imagery. Despite his education, his work in the field of economics, and his long years of experience at the most austere end of the human condition, he remains unquestionably a romantic. Salgado is a man who dreams and a man who regards dreams as important. He is not, however, a Don Quixote. Fully comprehending the nature and size of the windmills at which he tilts and cognizant of the harsh reality that such a large percentage of our world's population inhabits, through his imagery, the use of his name and the foundation established in Brazil, Salgado is determined to make the one thing truly important to him: a difference.
SIMON JAMES IS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND WRITER LIVING IN LONDON, ENGLAND.