Photography Masters - Sebastiao Salgado
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Sebastiao Salgado

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

As a doctorate in economics, who was travelling to Africa for a World Bank assignment, his work involved documenting his experiences which sparked interest in Sebastiao Salgado to take on photography as a profession. Born in Brazil in 1944, by the age of 30 he was freelancing as a photojournalist for the Sygma agency in Paris, moving on to Gamma and later joining Magnum, the international photography cooperative founded, among others, by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.

Salgado shot into instant fame in the west with his widely published photos of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, when he was covering Reagan’s first 100 days as president for the Times Magazine.

By the time Salgado was in his mid-30s, he had begun to focus on long-term projects that told a story through a series of images. As a person who had spent his early years on a large cattle farm, Salgado's stark images portrayed subjects living in desperate economic circumstances. He deployed a technique of pictures in series, because his narrative avoided separating the subject from the context. In order to delve deep into the communities and habitats, he thus undertook prolonged projects, or photo-essays, that present sensitive dramas of clashing geographical, social and cultural structures.

Thus, unlike many Third World photographs, what stands out in Salgado’s work is the dignity and integrity that he communicates of his subjects without forcing their heroism or implicitly soliciting pity—but conveying a subtle understanding of social and economic situations.

When he was 50, Salgado left Magnum to set up the photo agency, Amazones Images, in partnership with his architect-wife Lélia, who kick-started him into photography and was his inspiration for his transition from an economist to a photographer. Soon thereafter, in his mid-50s, the couple co-founded the non-profit organization, Instituto Terra, with a mission to conserve the Atlantic rainforest that surrounded his family home, which had been depleted by deforestation and erosion; and rejuvenate a forest with flora and fauna that had gradually disappeared.

Desert Hell, Kuwait, 1991. There is a lot of drama and contrast in the frame. The two focal points of interest are the man and the smoke plume both placed in thirds of the frame (Rule of Thirds). The smoke plume further adds visual weight due to its shape and size.
Desert Hell, Kuwait, 1991. There is a lot of drama and contrast in the frame. The two focal points of interest are the man and the smoke plume both placed in thirds of the frame (Rule of Thirds). The smoke plume further adds visual weight due to its shape and size.

It was around 2013, that Salgado completed an awesome eight-year project or photo-essay, Genesis, to re-establish the faith in the partnership of humanity and nature; and finding nature in its pure, pristine state. Salgado’s images transport us to the remotest regions of the planet to experience five-ton elephant seals in South Georgia, natives of the Dinka tribe herding cattle, thousands of penguins on Zavodovski Island and the Nenets of northern Siberia crossing the ice into the Arctic Circle. Comments Salgado, ‘Genesis is a mosaic presented by nature itself, but it is not just a romantic contemplation of the sublime, instead, it opens up a discussion about what we have done to the planet and what we must now do to protect it. The work is the record of my journey, a visual ode to the majesty and fragility of the Earth. But it is also a warning, I hope, of all that we risk losing.’

Chinstrap Penguins on an Iceberg between Zavodovski and Visokoi Islands, South Sandwich Islands, 2009. The bright white iceberg is set against dark waters and cloudy skies drawing the eyes towards it. The penguins are set against the iceberg in a diagonal line leading the viewer’s eye.
Chinstrap Penguins on an Iceberg between Zavodovski and Visokoi Islands, South Sandwich Islands, 2009. The bright white iceberg is set against dark waters and cloudy skies drawing the eyes towards it. The penguins are set against the iceberg in a diagonal line leading the viewer’s eye.

Writing for The Guardian (18th May 2015), Jonathan Jones quips, ‘Salgado is not just a great photographer. He may well be the last great photographer – at least in the classic, humane tradition, working in black and white, telling profound truths. You can leaf through any of Salgado’s books and every few pages be pulled up by a shot that seems like one of the best photographs ever taken.’

It may not be an exaggeration to say that more than any other contemporary, Salgado signifies the genre of fine art photojournalism. He has managed to reposition photography as ‘high art’ with his highly skilled tonality and the chiaroscuro effect of his dramatic black and white images. It is no wonder that his ordinary family background coupled with his academic, political and professional insights has created a distinctive aesthetic that renders the world both beautiful and humbling.

Awarded the Photographer of the Year Award by the American Society of Magazine Photography in 1987, Salgado has deservedly won almost every major photography prize, such as the Eugene Smith Award for Humanitarian Photography, two ICP Infinity Awards for Journalism, the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Award, and the Arles International Festival's prize for best photography book of the year for Workers.

The Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1996. The pillars give a sense of depth and perspective guiding the eye towards the center of the frame. The numerous people lined up for praying in the mosque creates a symmetrical pattern further creating focal interest.
The Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1996. The pillars give a sense of depth and perspective guiding the eye towards the center of the frame. The numerous people lined up for praying in the mosque creates a symmetrical pattern further creating focal interest.

Besides being a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, his work has, over the decades, been exhibited in exhibitions worldwide. His books have been widely recognized, such as Other Americas , which recorded the everyday lives of Latin American peasants; Sahel: Man in Distress, a book on the 1984–85 famine in the Sahel region of Africa, and An Uncertain Grace, which included a remarkable group of photographs of mud-covered workers at the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil.

In October 2019, while awarding the prestigious €25,000 Peace Prize 2019 of the German Book Trade to 75-year-old Sebastiao Salgado, it described him as an artist ‘who works for social justice and peace through his photographs and who lends urgency to the global debate on nature and protecting the climate…his evocative black-and-white photographs are a homage to the greatness of nature; and by showing the defiled Earth as well as its fragile beauty, Salgado presents us with the opportunity to understand the Earth for what it is: a habitat that does not belong to us alone, and that must absolutely be preserved.’

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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