Book cover: Sebastičo Salgado

Sebastião Salgado:

The Road Paved With Good Intentions ?

The photographs of Sebastião Salgado arouse strong passions. Whenever his work comes under discussion in the bars and clubs where photojournalists are prone to meet, opinions fall either of two ways with no gradations between: outright adulation or downright suspicion about his methods and motivations.

Ultimately, one's own assessment can only be made after seeing both the book and the exhibition, both titled Workers: An Archaeology Of The Industrial Age, rather than the carefully chosen selections published in many popular magazines as a foretaste of the larger project now on show.

The issues underlying the problem with Salgado's work go way beyond just this one project by this one photographer; they are the worm in the heart of photojournalism as it is practised today, and it's the vicissitudes of history that hatched the egg of that worm. The great general interest picture magazines that gave birth and sustenance to photojournalism started dying off from the late 1950s onwards: Collier's, Picture Post, Look, the old Life.

The close relationship between photographer, writer, editor and art director that defined the photojournalistic form was forged in these magazines, but came under attack when they fell victim to television, rising costs, the special interest magazine and often simply poor management.

Until its ship began to founder on the reef of hard times, photojournalism had shown a laudable ability to constantly evolve. The parking lots of assorted wavy-edged pictures typical of early magazine layouts gave way to multi-paged spreads of unashamedly subjective photography supported by insightful writing and layouts designed to clarify this dual reading process. At its height, photojournalism could not be broken down into its constituent parts without completely breaking its power to communicate with precision and emotion.

Now that the photoessay has followed the general interest magazine to the elephants' graveyard, the photojournalistic picture is in the dangerous position of having a message but no medium through which to best deliver it.

Photographers who still claim right to the title "photojournalist", working for newspapers and newsmagazines, have devolved into suppliers of instant graphic portraits or illustrative quick fixes. Just glance at any issue of any broadsheet newspaper. Publishers that once had sterling reputations for the very best photography now demand very little of their photographers, and offer them equally little in material and moral support.

It is no surprise therefore that out of frustration and urgency at getting still valid stories across that many photojournalists have turned to books and exhibitions. As the attendance figures at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the Magnum agency's group show based on the book In Our Time prove, there is a huge public for the photojournalistic image however it is presented. The questions are, have photojournalists adapted their work to properly take advantage of these new opportunities, and is photojournalism itself capable of communicating with the same depth in its new guise?

On the evidence of Workers, the answer is no, at least in Salgado's case. Deprived of the vehicle of the long-form magazine photoessay, of the way each issue demands flicking through several times so that it seeps into the subconscious to work covertly, Salgado has opted for the maximum double whammy. Blown up large, printed dense contrasty, all 395 images batter the eye with relentless graphic energy, one after another after another.

The critic A.D. Coleman titled an essayon Salgado's work "Eye Of A Sculptor", and there is no denying its clear-cut hard-edged power. Seen alongside contemporary art's human-sized paintings and sculptures, Workers more than holds its own as an attention grabber in any art gallery or museum.

Whammy part two lies in the frequent use Salgado makes of religious symbolism. There is the famous and often reproduced shot of the living hell of the Sierra Pelada gold mine, where thousands of mud-clad extras are presided over by a Christ figure in medieval costume leaning against a crucifix minus crossbar, like a scene from an over-blown C.B. de Mille epic movie.

Then there are the scenes during the annual La Mattanza tuna fishing in Sicily, where boatloads of fishermen resembling the first disciples haul in miraculous draughts of fishes, or gaze outwards in awe, perhaps at some foolhardy distant figure about to step onto the water.

Salgado makes the most of any opportunity to transfigure bodies with backlight, persuade the anonymous hand of God to reach down to Man, crucify an innocent or have someone stare rapt in transcendant vision. Salgado was born Catholic, in Catholic Latin America, and his appropriation of religious imagery comes as easily as Catholicism's annexation of native saints and rituals throughout its history.

Many exhibition-goers come away from Workers feeling socked in the face by its giant graphic icons, grateful for Salgado's offering of mediated charity and goodwill to fellow man. Through his photographs he allows us to fee l we are identifying with the downtrodden worker, offering up dampened handkerchiefs to sweaty brows.

Salgado's use of religiosity should not be mistaken for actual Christian feeling, nor should religion be confused with actual Christianity. In one of his interviews Salgado confuses the two, then declares that, "as an adult, I have nothing to do with religion."

Yet look at his deft use of religious language in the title of his previous book, An Uncertain Grace, and in both books' texts he and his collaborators use words like apocalypse, hell, paradise, God, the Devil, truth and splendour.

Salgado is one of the most written about photojournalists of the century with interviews in everything from Rolling Stone to People Weekly, and his interviewers have been complicit with titles like "The Visionary Light" and "Of Beatitudes And Burdens". Whatever Salgado's own true intentions, he has been adopted as a spiritual expeditionary by those in desperate search for a guru.

On the evidence Salgado has more than achieved his aim of emotional resonance and the grandiose overstatement, but what else is he after? Having cut the journalistic photograph loose from its moorings on the magazine page, he has reinserted the supporting paragraph via a caption booklet bound into the back of Workers.

It reads like a dispassionate economic report, of facts and figures and industrial history, and it betrays Salgado's origins as a Third World development economist. His subject is the workers as undifferentiated mass, flowing and ebbing with the tides of history. He appears far less interested in them as individuals.

When Salgado does come close to one of his workers in their ones and their twos, his eye meets theirs and they in turn meet ours, but there is no getting beneath it. They manage to keep their dignity, but Salgado shows us little of their daily privations as sulphur carriers, lead processors or oil well fire fighters, the filthy occupations the First World has seen fit to wash its hands of, along with the compatriots Salgado seems to be equally pleased to have left behind, when he moved base from Brazil to France.

Written 1994. © Copyright Karl-Peter Gottschalk 1997.