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A Different Light:  The Photography of Sebastião Salgado

by Parvati Nair
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011
376 pp., illus. 21 b/w. Trade, $99.95; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5031-6; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5048-4.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

The scope of Parvati Nair’s case study, A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado, a theoretical overview of Salgado’s work in relation to broader reflections on sociology and photojournalism, is in many ways comparable to the photographer’s panoramic vistas overlooking the plains of the Sahara.  Conceived as an interdisciplinary analysis of Salgado’s major photo essays within a much larger ideological context of debates on aesthetics, history, ethics, politics, humanism, and the role of documentary photography in general, Salgado’s photography, the author argues, forms part of a collective historical, ethical, and political consciousness that she identifies with displacement, exile, alterity, alienation, and economic dominance wrought by capitalism.  “Captive as they are to the capitalist dream of a better life,” she writes, “the globalized people move endlessly in routes predetermined by the flow of capital, yet remain trapped in the disjuncture of global inequalities.”

Her first chapter presents a summary of Salgado’s major photographic series undertaken since the 1970’s:  Other Americas (on the indigenous populations of Latin America, 1977); Sahel:  L’homme en détresse (on drought and famine in Africa, 1973-1988); An Uncertain Grace (a project on the dispossessed of Africa, Latin America and Asia, 1974-1989); Workers:  An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (a tribute to manual labor in relation to modernization, mechanization and technology, 1886-1992); Terra (the struggle of the landless, 1997); Migrations, Exodus, and The Children (on the plight of refugees forced to flee civil upheaval and violence across the globe, 2000); The End of Polio:  A Global Effort to End a Disease (a photo-essay that tracked the fight to conquer polio in five countries in collaboration with UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001); and his current project Genesis, also supported by various United Nations bodies such as UNICEF and UNEP (the United Nations Environmental Program), concerned with the balance between man, beast, and nature in life on earth.  Many who have experienced first hand the breathtaking scale of Salgado’s production, with its cinematic sweep and shocking emotional power, have described their response to his work in religious terms. Nair, too, in her opening statement calls attention to the pathos and splendor of Salgado’s visions of human struggle and survival in ways that leave viewers feeling at once humbled yet ennobled.

Subsequent chapters explore Salgado’s photography and photojournalism from multiple theoretical perspectives.  Nair considers at length the relationship between aestheticized and documentary photography, invoking Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno’s postmodernist critiques, their notions of aesthetic transcendence, aura and “theological” engagement in relation to the role of art in modern society; Susan Sontag’s criticism of the “industrialization” of photography and its purpose-driven dissemination; Martha Rosler’s charges of commodification; Ingrid Sischy’s objection to the exploitation of poverty in the interests of formalist cliché.  Nair defends Salgado’s “ambivalent beauty” in terms of the contradictory, contingent nature of a modernity marked by flux and pluralism through arguments drawn from such theorists as John Easterby, Nicholas Wroe and John Berger.  She also observes parallels between Salgado’s imagery and manifestations of Latin American hybridity, its admixtures of Baroque sensibility and Magical Realist imagination identified with such figures as Alejo Carpientier and Oscar Niemeyer. Other sections approach Salgado by way of comparison to Latin American photographers such as Miguel Rio Branco and Graciela Iturbide or to social documentary photographers that include Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, James Nachtwey, Steve McCurry and Alfredo Jaar.  She examines the subversive potential of photographs to displace conventional power centers, established traditions and familiar iconographic tropes through empathic interventions in dominant historical narratives as in Salgado’s image of a woman of the Sahel as a metonym of socio-historic blindness.  In one chapter Nair explores the subject of ethics in photo documentary photography as a prediscursive, preconceptual responsibility to the other.  In a modern society in which moral good is equated with material goods and ‘fair share’ exchange, she argues, photography presents the possibility for mediation by reaching across boundaries to encourage social engagement, political encounter, solidarity and sentient response.  In this way Salgado’s photography, especially that of Genesis which focuses on premodern peoples, creatures and spaces, seeks reintegration with nature both through involvement in the Istituto Terra, a project to regenerate the Atlantic rainforest administered by Salgado’s wife Lélia, and his holistic photo exploration of the planet and the plenitude of creation.

Nair, who is a Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at the University of London where she directs the Centre for the Study of Migration, is at her impassioned best when she allows her voice to be heard on behalf of Salgado’s most vulnerable subjects:  “In Migrations,” she recounts, “we see in ways that we find hard to forget, but in ways that are often overlooked, people upon people, walking, waiting, hoping.  We see people on the road, by buses, on trains, in boats; people without tickets or papers; people who carry their entire wealth on their person.  We see people who risk their lives as they cross borders and oceans, people who move on even as they remember their land and their dead, people spurred by despair and by hope.  We see people living in transitory conditions, in camps, in tents, in war zones, people holding on to one another because all else has been lost.”

Paradoxically, her reliance on corroborating post-colonial, aesthetic, psychoanalytic and literary theory from Lacan and Derrida to Levinas and Merleau-Ponty in support of her arguments, rather than on the textuality of the photographs as primary foci, tends to distance her commentary from its emotive center.  Methodologically, it treats Salgado’s photography (illustrated sparingly) more as evidence of polemical constructs of social history (tending to appropriation) than as original force fields within which protective, procreative instincts engender moral sentiments necessary to the formation of positions and public policies directed towards the common good.  Articulated as conflicted debates between such classifications as aestheticized and documentary photography, or between elitist market interests at odds with corrective intervention, her fundamentally socioeconomic treatment, rendered indexically, gives precedence to multiple theoretical frames of interpretation as to postmodernism’s ideological fissures over sentient response elicited visually by the imagery.  The text does, however advance a perceptive, penetrating understanding of social and natural discord encoded in the photographs.  Citing Roland Barthes, Nair ultimately concludes that it is precisely through the ethical and ideological intent of Salgado’s photographs, combined with their symbolic, lyrical and transformative import, that they hold the power to act as agents of change, if not redemption.  Light seeking, they offer interrelated visions of extraordinary resilience, human dignity and hope to an uncertain, perilous world, a world that remains for Salgado yet life affirming and irrevocably beautiful.


Last Updated 1 May 2012

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