His iconic images have brought labouring miners and starving migrants to startling life on the pages of the world's news magazines. They have also brought him wealth. Nicholas Wroe on the paradoxes of the great photographer who started as a government economist
In 1971 Sebastião Salgado travelled to Rwanda as an economist working for the International Coffee Organisation. His job was to assess the efficiency of plantations and to advise on diversification of crops at a time of over-production. It seems an unlikely episode to feature in the history of photo-journalism, but the 27-year-old Salgado, who had never even taken a snap until 1970, took his wife's camera on the trip. While there he photographed everything he saw and, on returning to his home in London, discovered that, "the pictures gave me 10 times as much pleasure as did my economic report. Photography was a better way to get inside reality."
Salgado has gone on to produce some of the most iconic and overwhelming images of the last three decades. He has also redefined the business model of photo-journalism, working through his own agency, which allows him not only editorial control of what he shoots, but also the power to harness his work in the service of the humanitarian and environmental issues that consume him. "You must have a reason to be somewhere in the world taking photographs," he explains. "You have to believe your pictures will be of some use. Otherwise there is no point." Paradoxically, his most widely seen pictures are not in the least representative of his work or philosophy. In 1981 he took the only stills of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But while these dramatic images appeared on the front pages of every newspaper in the world, the pictures that he will best be remembered for come from months of intense absorption in his subject, not from a few seconds of being in the right place at the right time. And his subject's are not the rich and powerful but the poor and the powerless.
It was Salgado who captured the "human anthill" gold mine at Serra Pelada in Brazil. In a vast open pit, the size of two football pitches, 50,000 mud covered "garimpeiros" - freelance gold prospectors - carried their cargoes of debris up and down flimsy ladders in a scene that has been described as straight from Hieronymus Bosch's vision of hell. Salgado's early pictures of the Ethiopian famine in 1984/85 alerted the world to the impending catastrophe. It is not too strong a claim to make that his work started the process that culminated with LiveAid. His pictures of oil-blackened workers capping wells in Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War crystallised both what the war was about and what it had cost.
Salgado's work is shown in galleries and printed in handsomely produced expensive books. He has won every major photographic award and regularly delivers high-profile lectures. Photo-journalism at this level continues to raise many problematic moral and aesthetic issues, and Salgado's unprecedented commercial success has made him something of a lightning rod for criticism. Is it right that such misery should appear on swanky gallery walls? Is the only person who gains from these pictures the photographer himself? What place do $100 photographic books have in a debate about poverty?
"Of course there are huge moral dilemmas about publishing a very expensive book which has pictures of people dying in it," says pioneering British photo-journalist Don McCullin who came to prominence with his work on the Vietnam war. "And the argument that the person who gains the most from this sort of work is the photographer does hold some water. These have always been difficult issues for photo-journalism and they can be applied to all of us. But in a time when editors don't want death and destruction in their papers anymore, when all they are after is the up-beat, it has been Salgado who has managed to keep making people sit up and take notice."
The writer John Berger is currently working on a film about Salgado with the American actor and director Tim Robbins. "People were saying photo-journalism was over but he proves it is not," says Berger. "We have become so accustomed to seeing people who are suffering only as victims. There is a syndrome around catastrophe and victimisation, fed by the media, that promotes only a sense of pity. But what he tries to do is allow the dignity of people, even people who are suffering terribly, to become evident in his photographs."
Since his pictures of the African famines appeared, Salgado has been engaged on a series of increasingly monumental projects examining the lives of vast swathes of the world's population. These projects take him to his locations for weeks and even months. The results have been remarkable. Workers, his study of manual labour at the end of the 20th century, was published in 1993 and involved six years work and 26 countries. His latest major work on population movement, Migrations, was published last month and took five years to complete. This time he travelled to 35 countries and documented the magnetic draw of North America on the south, the refugee crises in Africa, the rural exodus in Latin America and the explosion of megacities in Asia.
"What drives him? Justice, I think," says Chris Boot who worked with Salgado at the Magnum photographic agency. "It sounds old-fashioned but he has an extremely strong sense of, and direct involvement in, issues of social justice."
Sebastião Salgado was born in 1944 on a ranch near the small town of Aimorés in the Brazilian hinterland. His extended family of 16, including seven sisters, was female except for him and his father, and he acknowledges that he was cosseted. Half of their land was cultivated, with the other half taken up by rainforest.
"It was fabulous playing in the forest," he recalls. "There were lots of rivers and we would see monkeys and crocodiles. The forest was part of our life."
His family raised cattle as well as growing beans and rice and were broadly self-sufficient. Salgado is a fierce critic of the processes of globalisation and fondly compares his model of farming to the trend for vast agri-businesses that swept Brazil as he grew up. When he was about eight the rainforest on his own ranch, with others in the region, was entirely turned over to cattle as the Brazilian economy swung behind the need to export meat to global markets in general and to north America in particular.
"Everybody did it but it was a disaster," he says. "When the rains came the land became badly eroded, soon it was almost like a desert."
He attended the local school until he was 15 and then went to the port town of Vitória where he took a series of part-time jobs to pay for his continuing education. He worked in a Ford garage parking cars and in a bookshop. It was while employed as a secretary in a French language school that he met his wife to be, Lélia, who now runs their photographic agency.
He graduated from Espirito Santo College in Vitória in 1967 and married Lélia the same year. They moved to São Paulo where he did post-graduate work and went on to a job in the state finance ministry as an economist. He soon became involved with the leftist movement. After a coup in 1968 the military regime in Brazil became increasingly repressive. Salgado soon found himself facing a difficult choice. Friends and comrades were being tortured and some were even killed. "I could become a clandestine leftist, or become a guerrilla or leave Brazil," he explains.
He chose to leave. "We thought about it for a few months but we were young and decided it was for the best." In 1969 he and Lélia arrived in Paris where he continued work on a PhD and she studied as an architect. "We were part-refugees, part-immigrants, part-students," he says. After his discovery of photography in Rwanda he began to go to photographic shows in London and buy books on the subject. Two years later he resigned from his job and went back to France to work as a freelance photographer. He bought a motorbike and started "running round Paris" taking photos. He soon joined the Sigma agency, the black leather-jacketed hard-men of French photography.
Six months later his son, Juliano, was born and Salgado resigned from Sigma because he didn't want to travel full-time. Juliano is now 26 and makes documentaries. Salgado has one grandson. His second son, Rodrigo, was born five years later and has Downs' Syndrome. Rodrigo lives with his parents in Paris but his father is proud of his independence - he takes the bus to school on his own, speaks French and Portuguese and plays piano and the guitar. Salgado says, "I'm editing my personal contact sheets at the moment and looking at the pictures it breaks my heart to see how many years I missed. I have seen all over the planet but I have lost a big part of my life. Lélia has brought then up and she has been marvellous." John Easterby, who was director of archiving at Magnum while Salgado was there and is now director of the prestigious IPG agency, remembers Salgado taking two "monster" commercial ad campaign jobs for le Creuset and Volvo. "The work was completely consistent with his style but he was very open that the money he would make would enable him to provide a better life for his son. The paradox is that the set of pictures that made him the most money, the Reagan shooting, were the worst pictures he has ever done."
In 1975, Salgado joined the Gamma agency and worked with them for the next four years. "This was my school of photo-journalism," he says. "Gamma worked for all the big papers all over the world." His list of photographic heroes at that time is instructive. It is perhaps no surprise that he says, "Don McCullin for me was God." He also praises the work of Philip Jones Griffiths who, like McCullin, worked in Vietnam during that war. But the photographer whom he says influenced him most was Bill Brandt who, although acclaimed for photographing conditions in London during the blitz, is equally well known for his nudes and almost surreal depictions of pure form.
McCullin warns that, "with photo-journalism you have to be careful not to stray into that dodgy grey area of art. But Salgado is passionate about what he believes in, and you have to acknowledge his major achievements. He has made photo-journalism respectable."
Salgado says that being at Gamma was exhilarating. "We would read the press wires for news anywhere on the planet. We'd get somewhere on a Friday night, meet the local press, shoot the pictures and on the Monday you'd ask someone at the airport to take your films back to Paris. Gamma would send a motorcyclist to the airport and two days later your pictures would be in Newsweek and Time. It was fantastic."
This was a period of "massive stories" for photo-journalists with the on-going de-colonisation of Africa being accompanied by war and famine. But after four years he became increasingly disillusioned. "I began to repeat things, and we would only have two days to deal with these big issues. It became a big frustration to me and I began to explore whether I could work in another way."
In 1979 he went to South America with a view to putting together a substantial body of work on the peasant population. Several charities have used his work to raise funds and awareness of third world poverty, and Christian Aid supported this trip by commissioning work. Joseph Cabon is its head of photography. "His images can convey to viewers who may not know anything about the situation a sense of what those people are going through," says Cabon. "What he has done is make a lot of difficult subjects easier to deal with for people who otherwise might have been turned off. It fits with the way Christian Aid wants to present issues that are important to us."
Salgado spent four months in Bolivia, Peru and Equador. The pictures he took eventually contributed to his 1986 book Other Americas, but at the time he couldn't sell a single picture to a commercial buyer. His response was to leave the exclusively "hot-news" Gamma and move to the unruly cooperative that was the Magnum photo-agency, the home of "concerned photography", where he hoped to pursue his ideas of more substantial work.
Magnum had been set up in 1947 by Cartier-Bresson, "the poet of the camera", and the war photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger. Capa and Seymour both died covering wars and Rodger abandoned war photography after finding himself looking for composition when photographing Belsen. Salgado was given more room to develop his preferred style of working but, ironically, he was working for Magnum when he took the Reagan shots.
He was on a story covering the president's first 100 days in office. Reagan was speaking at a hotel in Washington. Because Salgado had eight pages to fill and needed lots of different shots he left the hotel just before the speech finished to capture Reagan leaving the building - 200 other photographers stayed inside the hall and got pictures of him smiling and shaking hands. "I started to take pictures just as the man [John Hinckley] started shooting," says Salgado. "Because I was on this story for the New York Times I had been driven to the hotel with security men, so they knew who I was, and I was actually standing inside the security ring when it happened." But he doesn't like showing the pictures or talking about them too much. "It gets so much attention that I could become just the photographer who took the pictures of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. That can destroy you for just one minute's work." He began to develop a mode of working that would satisfy both his clients and himself. He made 16 additional trips to Latin America to finish off his Other Americas project and he got magazines to pay for them all. "I would do a week for a magazine project in Bolivia and then three weeks for me," he explains. He has continued with this patchwork of funding and support ever since. "It allows me to use my ideas and not just the ideas of the magazines."
While the high-spending glossy magazines pick up most of the bills for his trips he has maintained and developed links with aid agencies and other humanitarian organisations, such as Save the Children. Alan Thomas, the charity's picture librarian, says, "If Salgado thinks that our work will fit into what he is doing anyway then he will work for our measly rates and he will do what we ask him to do. His style of getting in very close with children and showing dynamic images links with a lot of our activities."
Salgado relies on the support of agencies while on the road but usually travels alone, taking only three small cameras and three lenses. For all this apparent simplicity, his style of working is not universally popular. One aid worker who accompanied him in Africa described him as, "a complete prima donna. He is used to people paying homage to him and he doesn't muck in regarding accommodation. Having said that, in the end I forgave him everything because, of course, the pictures were brilliant."
She says he had a wonderful knack of dealing with children in particular. "The children weren't frightened. He sort of mesmerised them and they would freeze for him." A fellow photo-journalist is less impressed. "His work in the early 80s was extremely technically competent and remarkable in many ways. But since he has been doing these huge projects there doesn't seem to be any soul to his work. It feels automated. I was with him in what was Zaire and he didn't seem to have a great deal of interest in the people he photographed."
John Easterby defends him. "While of course it would be nice to make the down times in the evening as pleasant as possible, that is not why he is there. He has a job to do. This man's work, indirectly, inspired the public response to the Ethiopian famine."
There is little doubt that Salgado, like most photo-journalists, is not without ego, ambition or determination. It is part of the job description and he had to call on all his powers of self belief when he embarked on his study to record the end of large scale manual labour. "For me we were arriving at the end of industrial revolution, with the arrival of intelligent machines," he says. "The relation between men and machine had changed for ever." The six-year study took in a slaughterhouse in South Dakota, textile factories in Bangladesh, steelworks in the Ukraine and workers digging the Eurotunnel in Folkestone. He found that while European factories had already been automated, the old manual versions had been shipped, almost piece by piece to the third world.
He readily acknowledges that he does more than simply record his subjects. He explicitly sets out to show their dignity. "My pictures are not neutral. Photography is not objective There is no such thing as a neutral picture. When you take a photograph of something you come with your past, with the way you think. You photograph with your mind and, of course, as an economist I knew this world very well by theory. I wanted to record the end of an era."
The length of time he spends making his pictures is important. Any documentary photographer will tell you of the problems of people either being camera shy or playing up to the camera. "When you are there for four weeks or four months then the relationship is completely different," he says. "You have time to wait for real things to happen in front of you."
One of the artistic criticisms made of him is that his later work, can sometimes give the feeling that he is on autopilot, simply harvesting images. Critics have spoken of a sense of sterility and coldness. John Easterby says it is true that he has, "developed a fingerprint for his pictures. That's what artists try to do. He did that early and to great effect and has to some extent stuck to it. But you have to remember that many magazines now have a paranoia about upsetting the sensibilities of their readers." Easterby contends that Salgado has thought this through and developed a way to show horrific situations without making readers look away. "Many pictures from famine or from war border on the pornographic. But if people look at a picture and close their eyes or turn the page you have served no purpose at all. His pictures are beautiful manifestations of the unpalatable. He makes it possible to look at the unlookable." John Berger rejects the often-made accompanying criticism that because Salgado's work can be beautiful while depicting shocking events it is somehow hypocritical or exploitative. "For Christ's sake," he explodes, "I mean literally for Christ's sake. I've seldom heard a more half-baked argument. What about all the crucifixions in western art? What about the Pietá of Michaelangelo? Half of European visual art until the 20th century was about terrible things that at the same time were beautiful. In fact they were the definition of what people called beautiful."
Not even Salgado's sternest critics have described his set of pictures of the Serra Pelada as anything but awesome. Salgado says he had tried to get to the mine for several years but, because it was under the jurisdiction of the federal police and he had a political past in Brazil, he was always refused access. It wasn't until 1986, when the police had ceded control of the mine to the cooperative that owned it, that he was allowed in. "It was a vision from the middle ages," he says. "There were no machines and all these men were working in a very primitive way." He stayed for three weeks and remembers the place as having a unique ambience. "There were no women allowed and there was this atmosphere that combined the danger of the work and the chance of huge wealth. People would work for months in the hope of getting some gold because you could get up to 2 kilos if you were lucky. Many of them never got any gold at all, but a lot of them did and went on to buy hotels or small farms."
His project on workers naturally segued into an interest in migration. Everywhere he travelled he came across people on the move. "From just a few million eight years ago there are now 30m or 40m refugees today. And this is just people who have crossed borders, there are more again who are refugees within their own country."
In 1994, soon after starting the project, he left Magnum and set up his own Amazonas agency, which is run by his wife. Chris Boot explains the complex dynamics of the Magnum co-operative. "They could be a very disputatious group. There is always a clash in the organisation between the independence of the individual and collective endeavour. Most photographers clash with the group at some stage. One of the problems is that people have almost family-like relationships and so a departure is somewhat akin to divorce."
Working through his own contacts, Salgado planned the complex logistics of his migrants project. Arrangements were made to provide 12 magazines with excerpts from the work in progress, and the completed study now takes the form of two large books, a travelling show, a set of posters and a series of information packs for teachers to lead discussions in schools. The pictures themselves are an astonishing testament to perhaps the most significant global event of our times.
"This is a serious problem and it needs to be discussed," he says. "I am accused of photographing misery but that is not true. I have photographed people who have lost their base, their way of life. But these people have dignity and are hoping to go to a new life. They all have a story. They are not statistics." He is adamant that the pictures are not about merely pricking consciences. "I want to tell people what is going on and how easily things can change. For instance, in the former Yugoslavia, people had lives very similar to life in Britain. They were not poor. They had cars and television and universities. Now they are in a very difficult situation. It can happen so fast and it can happen to anyone.
Germans today are so rich, but 50 years ago they were at the side of the road as refugees. And that change can happen in Africa as well. It is terrible what is going on in Africa today and it is getting worse."
He admits that changes in the media mean it is unlikely he could ever undertake another project in this scale. Magazines which have traditionally taken his work are becoming more and more reticent about photo-journalism. But Salgado will continue to take photographs and pursue other practical action to further the causes he believes in.
Back in Brazil, on the ranch where he grew up, he is currently attempting to re-plant the forest that was destroyed when he was a boy. He has plans to plant 1.5m trees and build an educational establishment that will teach both children and teachers about environmental issues in their area. He has committed a considerable amount of money himself and in total has raised $1m of the $3.5m needed. Last autumn the first 82,000 trees were planted. "It won't change the weather," he says, "but it might change the mentality of people. That is the most important thing."
"Salgado's work is an onslaught on public opinion," says John Berger. "His phrase is 'let us listen to the present'. Some photographers say 'no'. They record the shock or horror felt by the witnesses to terrible events but there is no sense of human effort and therefore no sense of human resistance. Salgado sees these are real people. The realisation of this dignity, even in their bereavement or mourning, is to say 'yes'. Salgado says 'yes'."