I believe that the average person can help a lot, not by giving material goods but by participating, by being part of the discussion, by being truly concerned about what is going on in the world.

Sebastião Salgado is, as the tilde indicates, Brazilian. He is now 65 years of age and – above these administrative considerations, it is his path to professional photography that is interesting.Back in 1968 he earned a master’s degree in economics from Sao Paulo University. Only 3 years later he eventual completed his doctorate in Paris, before turning to photography in 1973.

Over the course of his academic studies and until 1973, Salgado worked for the Brazilian Ministry of Finance and more notably for the International Coffee Organization (agency created under the auspices of the UN), for which he took part in several missions in Africa. During these travels, Salgado started photography and these images brought from Africa eventually led him to abandon his promising career as an economist.

Southern Sudan. 1995 (Amzonas

He rapidly join the Sygma Agency in Paris and later was affiliated with Gamma and the prestigious Magnum agencies. In 1994 he founded the “Amazonas Images” agency, exclusively dedicated to the promotion of his work.

Africa, where he made his debuts, is an important chapter of his work as after 1973, he made several coverage there. We can remember the drought in Northern Africa (where he followed the NGO “Médecins sans frontières“) from which he brought back a book “Sahel: Man in Distress“. A few months earlier, “Other Americas”, his first book – on poverty in Latin America, was released.

 

Gourma-Rharous (Mali, 1985)

Gourma-Rharous (Mali, 1985)

His reputation as an excellent photo reporter was starting to form, and it is his third book “Workers“, along a successful exhibition, that allowed him to reach a broaden audience. Going around the world documenting manual labor, he brought attention to relatively unknown – and mostly ignored – issues: labor safety, child work, human exploitation. Remember that was in the late 1980′ ! “Workers” is no small piece of work, and Salgado then moved on another major issue: displaced person.

People may be moving to avoid war, to find water or food, to avoid death or “simply” seeking for a better life. Salgado followed them for 6 years and brought back “Migrations” and “The Children“, acclaimed all over the world for their humanity and veracity.

In 2001, he became a UNICEF Special Representative and participated in several project for the UN agency.

The ‘Genesis’ Project

‘Epic’. That word is coming to my mind when I think about the Genesis Project. Simply put, this project is an attempt to record on film (or sensor…) the beauty of many pristine places around the world. Due to be complete by 2012, Salgado already traveled to about 20 places, bringing back reports in Galapagos Islands, Namibia,  Antarctica or Papua New Guinea.

Going further than the original idea of ‘places’, the project also encompasses pictures of actual people, tribes in the Amazon for example.

Venezuela, 2006 (Amazonas Images)

As usual with Amazonas Images, the material produced during the Genesis Project will be published as a book (probably more than one or two, due to the range of the project) and as an exhibition.

My take

Just like many people, I got to know Salgado through his work after the first Gulf War, when he followed firemen trying desperately to extinguish the lighten up petrol wells in Kuwait. One picture in particular comes to mind :

Apocalypse in Oil (Kuwait, 1991)

Apocalypse in Oil (Kuwait, 1991)

On the above picture, Hans-Michael Koetzle noted (after duly putting the picture in its context):

What we are looking at is an anonymous labor hero – no ordinary human being, but an icon: not a mere ‘hand’, but a monument, cast in bronze for eternity. With the passion of an adherent of liberation theology Sebastiao Salgado is a specialist in icons.

This quote pretty much says it all. Going further than documenting, Salgado put faces on situation where personality does not seem to exist. At heart he is an activist voicing the life of the workers and victims of our times. Recipe of his success: long term commitment + humility + a unique vision of the world.

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