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Salgado, the Sahel, and Photography’s Biggest Dilemma

By Alexander J. Gerstenhaber, Crimson Staff Writer

Although The New Yorker criticized Sebastião Salgado’s photography during the Sahel famine of the 1970s claiming his “beautification … is a call to admiration, not to action,” very few of his images are beautiful. And unlike his later works, which became some of the most celebrated and widely known photography projects of all time, Salgado’s book “Sahel: The End of the Road” is neither mesmerizing nor captivating. In fact, the vast majority of its images, despite being compositionally elegant in Salgado’s trademark, highly saturated black and white style, make the viewer want to look away. Anybody who either appreciates art, feels compassion for the world, or both, should celebrate that distinction.

Before becoming the world-renowned photographer that he is today, Sebastião Salgado was a trained economist. During his time spent working for the International Coffee Organization in 1971 (a subject that he would later document at great length), he began taking photos. At first, he was merely a freelancer, but his desire to feel more connected to the people he knew only in academic contexts imbued him with the palpable empathy that defines his work today — a characteristic reflected by his emphasis on portraying the suffering of people who rarely have their stories told. Just over a decade later, working with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, he began photographing a drought which tore through the lives of countless people across Africa’s Sahel region.

Sandwiched between Africa’s Sahara desert and savanna, the Sahel region has suffered a long history of droughts dating back to the 17th century. Between 1968 and the early 1980s, the period in which Salgado immersed himself, roughly 100,000 people died due to disease and food shortages. And although the subject matter is clearly worth documenting, the way Salgado chose to depict the famine's horrors attracted controversy.

Christopher Morton, writing in a 2006 volume of Anthropological Quarterly, said that “the photographs are beautiful, beguiling, visceral.”

“But as artistic formations, the photographs seem to be denied a living existence among the communities that they ultimately belong to,” he added. In his opinion, which was shared by many other critics, Salgado profited from the suffering of others without helping to alleviate their struggles.

Because of this perception and also due to the harshness of the images, no American publisher was willing to publish Salgado’s book, worrying that nobody would buy a book of such provocative images. Although the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism eventually agreed to publish the book in 2004 in collaboration with the University of California Press, it is still Salgado’s least-known work.

But although some of Salgado’s Sahel photos are beautiful in terms of their perfect framing and notable grandeur, the vast majority aren’t. As a result, the simple, direct images serve a different purpose. His cover image is one of the only photos from the project that wowed me in the way that his later work consistently has. In this way, the cover image, which captures four robed refugees against a barren, dusty, and breathtakingly vast mountain range in Ethiopia, offers just enough incentive to open the book. From that point on, however, the body of images becomes significantly bleaker.

This reality is that — whether Salgado was still developing his style or acting intentionally — his deeply saturated black-and-white style is just about the only similarity between this project and his later works. Instead, in the Sahel, he frames his subjects with a matter-of-factness that he rarely continues in his later works. When he shot individual subjects in the Sahel, Salgado photographed them without emphasis on their environment. In images of groups, a similar people-first style highlighted the power of human relationships — those between mothers and their children, friends and their loved ones, and doctors and their patients — in dire times. And for somebody who later became known to the world as a master of grand, dramatic shots, his work in the Sahel is uncharacteristically narrow (of all his works, “Exodus” is likely the most similar in subject as it examines displacement in migrant communities, but does so with Salgado’s later-developed and considerably larger image scale and abstraction, often portraying hundreds of people together in massive environments).

One reason for this perception is that a large portion of the images in the Sahel are shot indoors. Primarily, due to Salgado’s work with Doctors Without Borders, they depict people of all ages receiving medical treatment or simply resting as they attempt to survive in incredibly difficult conditions.

Every one of these indoor images is dramatic for the unmissable frailty of Salgado’s subjects. If one image thus encompasses the entire project, it would be of a starved child, likely between the ages of five and ten, weighing himself in the Malian village of Gourma Rharous. The objective of the action: to enable the Doctors Without Borders clinic to appropriately ration food.

Still, this is far from the most disturbing of Salgado’s images. Throughout the project, he depicts countless people dying as they cling to their last moments of life.

In this way, criticisms of Salgado’s dilution of human suffering are unfounded because none of these images are easy to look at. Whether Salgado was opportunistic in utilizing the plight of others for his own benefit is a deeper, more real concern, but nonetheless one that the artist’s intent exonerates him from. This is because beneath every seemingly one-dimensional depiction of suffering is a story of resilience told by a man deeply inspired by the beauty of the universal human condition.

In the words of Michael Brenson writing for The New York Times in 1991, “Mr. Salgado finds in this raw, stripped-down state an existence that is highly physical but never soulless.”

By photographing people in their darkest times, when they are clinging to hope, connections, and resolve, Salgado illuminates the essence of life for people throughout the entire world.

But even if one deems intent irrelevant, Salgado’s Sahel images serve to illuminate the extent of human suffering that exists largely unknown to millions of people in more fortunate parts of the world, which Salgado notes is in a “crisis of excess.” And although many global observers may be aware of the gravity of certain crises in terms of their statistical significance — figures frequently quantify the number of people killed, injured, or displaced — Salgado attempts to individualize a tragedy that affects millions. By conveying the harshness of an issue that is both specific and overlooked, Salgado’s collection contributed to a global repository of sympathy and sensitivity, which can only impact future efforts from organizations like Doctors Without Borders in positive ways. In a more tangible sense, the proceeds of Salgado’s book sales, which were donated to the same foundation, aim to help alleviate future suffering of the kind he captured.

The acuteness of the empathy he seeks to impart on his viewers, then, makes the work all the more important at a time when the frequency of climate-induced catastrophes, like that which he documented, is only set to increase. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Sahel will continue to heat up in coming years, catalyzing intensified periods of extreme weather such as droughts and floods as a result of climate change.

In this light, and as increasing numbers of similar events ravage global populations, photography like Salgado’s is critical to transport the realities of the human experience beyond borders and across continents. For a battle that can only be won with collective action, such art, despite some concerns, is not only pivotal but irreplaceable.

—Alexander J. Gerstenhaber’s column “F4: The World in Pictures” is an appreciation of the photography that tells untold stories about the joys, hardships, and realities of the world’s people.

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