Sebastião Salgado

mickyates Aesthetics, Art, Coursework, Documentary, Gaze, ICWeek8, Informing Contexts, Photography, Portrait, Travel Leave a Comment

A couple of years ago, the PhotoBath collective, of which I am a member, mounted a successful exhibition of Sebastião Salgado’s work. It featured 8 platinum prints, produced by his local print maker.

Bluntly, I was not a particular fan of Salgado. There was (and still is) something about the sheer ‘epicness’ and technical wizardry of the photographs that can detract from the serious subjects he is covering. But I cannot deny his audience and his influence. Neither can I deny his good intentions or personal aesthetic choices.

One of the criticisms of Salgado’s portraits is that they are:

…  too much in the service of illustrating his various themes and notions to be allowed either to stand forth as individuals or to represent millions. He’s a symbolist more than a portraitist­, the people in his pictures remain strang­ers‘. (Sischy, 1991).

In other words, perhaps Salgado is too much an aestheticist rather a ‘concerned’ documentarian? I am taking photographers such as Lewis Hine, the Farm Security Administration group, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and the like as references for modernist social documentarians.

Here is one of the Salgado photographs that we exhibited.

Sebastião Salgado. 2008. Performer at the Mount Hagan Sing Song Festival, Papua New Guinea.

Setting myself up, here is a photograph that I took in the same Highlands, 14 years earlier.

Mick Yates. 1995. Village Chief, Lumu, Papua New Guinea.

I shared the two images with my Cromarty cohort, without caption or attribution, other than to say I was researching Salgado. I was intrigued as to how people might ‘read’ the image without context.

Here is the feedback:

‘I prefer the bottom one, less anthropological, more portrait orientated – although that’s not to say I like either.

Aesthetically the top one, as the focus is more on the subject and less distracting. But on a personal level, the bottom one, as less constructed, and more of an environmental portrait.

To me both are reminiscent of what Robert Bogdan called the ‘exotic mode’ of representation when writing about circus ‘freaks’. It looks like an exaggeration of the differences between the subject and the viewer, deliberately generated for the effect of showing this difference to an audience. the first especially looks staged, almost a studio portrait. And both look like the sort of portrait that always seems to appear in photo competitions showing some ‘ethnically divergent’ people as, for wont of a better word right now, ‘quaint’.

The top one feels forced, but both feel awkward.

Bottom one. The top one reminds me of the images used to document slaves. It is also artificial. Bottom photograph looks more natural – but didn’t Salgado set up a jungle studio?

I was going to say the bottom one is the kind of image you’d see in Nat Geo’.

So, other than a bit of an ego boost, what can we take from this ‘straw poll’?

Salgado’s image is distinctly constructed, technically strong, formal in an anonymous setting, and beautiful. Yet the individual seems distracted, and is on a stage.

My candid photograph perhaps has a more direct contact between subject and audience (certainly there is a direct eye contact), and it is has environmental context. In essence, these are two, different creative approaches to the same portrayal, and I could see both being part of a narrative about the Highlands.

I do not see ‘colonial gaze’ in either – others might disagree – and I am not sure how one could take more ‘objective’, culturally respectful portraits.

Perhaps the closest to that goal was the work of Adam Clark Vroman, who I have referenced before, and who I greatly admire. He bucked the trend in turn-of-the-century American photography of Native peoples, going out of his way to be objective and respectful, rather than sentimental, denigratory or exploitative.

Adam Clark Vroman. 1901. Hopi Maiden.

Yet Vroman was essentially an ethnographical photographer – he saw that his job was to record, not to make a social or political point via documentary photography. Salgado sees himself as a man on a mission.

Post-modernist theorists sought to both analyse documentary and then examine ways to move it forward as a genre. For example, John Tagg presents documentary rather negatively as:

…  a liberal, corporatist plan to negotiate economic, political and cultural crises through a linked programme of structural reforms, relief measures, and a cultural intervention aimed at restructuring the order of discourse, appropriating dissent, and re-securing the threatened bonds of social consent.’ (1988, pg 8)

However, Solomon-Godeau notes that all documentary supports the structures of power, and that the issue is always:

‘... the structural limitations of conventional documentary imagery to disrupt the textual, epistemological, and ideological systems that inscribe and contain it‘. (1994, pg 171).

In other words, to break those structures, to effect change in society, new kinds of imagery and aesthetics are required. Bearing in mind the era in which Tagg and Solomon-Godeau wrote, Salgado seems to offer at least one possible photographic solution for a ‘new’ documentary.

Grant Kester ended his 1987 essay with this:

So long as the theoretical developments of the art world, and the practical lessons of collective activism remain separated, new documentary’s oppositional potential will only be partially fulfilled‘.

And David Levis Straus is more direct:

Eschewing entirely the vaunted ‘objectivity’ of photojournalism, Salgado works in the realm of collective subjectivities, aspiring to that ‘transcendence of self which calls for ephiphany of the other’*. It is an aspiration that could breathe new life into the documentary tradition’. (pg 49).

In a 2015 Guardian interview with Jonathan Jones, Salgado said that  ‘The human animal is a political animal‘. And, in the Salt of the Earth movie (2014), Salgado notes:

‘If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things’. (Salt of the Earth).

This seems to be the key to his approach. Salgado’s photographs are compositionally arranged to emphasise the dignity of manual labour, and even of individuals in their suffering. In discussing the Serra Pelada mine in Brazil during a gold rush, Salgado says:

‘They may look like slaves, but there was not a single slave. If there was slavery there, it was the desire to be rich. Everyone wanted to be rich. There you could find everything: intellectuals, lawyers, farm employees, city workers …’. (Salt of the Earth)

This is his way of respecting people.

The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph‘. (Salt of the Earth).

And, in commenting on his Genesis project, Salgado says:

I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I am just a photographer. I wanted to show how some people are living in equilibrium with the planet, as we did thousands of years ago. I was surprised at how similar we all are; I wanted to show that even the most isolated group of people are the same as we are‘. (Salt of the Earth).

Salgado’s strategy is to illustrate our collective issues by showing the beauty of our world and our similarities rather than our differences – to help us see what we have, and what we might loose.

Whether this is a more effective strategy than, for example, Edward Burtynsky, who portrays large scale industrial landscapes and ecological disasters, is a matter for conjecture. But, respect and a positive portrayal must remain a possible strategy for change. To deny that would suggest that only ‘horror’ or ‘shock’ can effect change, and I am not aware of any literature which demonstrates that.

Still, there are other critiques of Salgado. In the essay noted above, Sischy criticises his supporters, who reference his non-European/American background as support.

… since when did being a Brazilian qualify someone as being the voice of Africa or India‘.

Yes, simply creating some kind of ‘third world congruence’ as justification is wrong. And there are the problems of colonial gaze, white man’s gaze, male gaze and so forth. But to bluntly deny an individual’s right or ability to try to address issues outside of their country of birth smacks of the bully pulpit. There is a kind of ‘reverse colonial damnation’ in Sischy’s words, which I find arrogant.

And Sischy ends her essay with:

The photographs are less than their subjects deserve. We can be sure that if truly appropriate images should ever surface, they will not be so ‘beautiful’ that they could work as packaged caring. Salgado’s sentimentalism, for all its earnestness, isn’t any kind of break­ through. Unfortunately, his champions aggravate the bullying quality of his work by presenting it as the Second Coming‘.

I think this is posturing.

Since when has the only ‘appropriate image’ of anything been ‘non beautiful’? That is a statement without back up or research. ‘Second Coming’ is classic, argumentative hyperbole. And, to suggest that Salgado is not ‘breaking through’ denies his undoubted connection with a vast audience.

Decisions to make change happen usually require all kinds of stimuli, as discussed elsewhere in this journal. Photography can help, but it is also about social, cultural and political context. And different people respond to stimuli in different ways. I do not think we can deny Salgado the right to try things ‘his way’.

I will accept that the ‘beauty’ seen in Salgado’s work could lead to superficial conclusions, which is where I started this short essay. But the essence of art is to offer new and individual perspectives on the human condition. If a critic or audience does not like those perspectives, they can ‘vote with their feet’, and ignore the work.

In fact, Stallabrass wrote:

Salgado is dangerous because … he begins to reveal an image of the operation of global capital – seeing it as a single system with its components, human and mechanical, placed on a large monochrome map. … 

Working people’s poverty and production is the source of the wealth of the minority, their fate may eventually become that of more and more people in the North; and this is precisely the danger of bringing the two halves together, even in the form of coffee-table books‘. (1997, pg 160)

Salgado has spent his life presenting the world as he sees it, in the hope that we can all both appreciate what we have, and do something about the issues we see – both human and environmental.

Are other strategies possible? Of course. But they do not need to become his.


Cordon, Gerry. 2015. The Salt of the Earth: Sebastião Salgado’s Own Way of Seeing. Available at (Accessed 19/03/2019).

Hackett, Sophie, Kunard, Andrea & Stahel, Urs (Editors). 2018. Anthropocene: Burtynsky, Baichwal, De Pencier. Fredericton: Goose Lane.

Jones, Jonathan, 2015. Sebastião Salgado: My Adventures at the Ends of the Earth. Guardian Interview, available at (accessed 19/03/2019).

Kester, Grant. 1987. Towards a New Social Documentary.

Levi Strauss, David. 2003. Between the Eyes. New York: Aperture.

Sischy, Ingrid. 1991. Good Intentions (Sebastião Salgado). Available at: (Accessed 17/03/2019).

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. 1994. Photography At The Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and PracticesUniversity of Minnesota Press.

Stallabrass, Julian. 1997. Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism. In New Left Review, May/June 1997. Available at (Accessed 17/03/2019).

Tagg, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wenders, Wim and Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro (Directors). 2014. Salt of the Earth. Decia Films.

Pictures and Words

mickyates Aftermath, Cambodia, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, ICWeek8, Ideas, Informing Contexts, Photography, Plans & Notes, Practice, Unfinished Stories, Work in Progress Leave a Comment

Robert Frank said, ‘Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference, and it is important to see what is invisible to others’. (cited in Hirsch, 2001, pg 9).

I define my work as documentary storytelling, and my current project is ‘Unfinished Stories’ of Cambodians that I have known for two decades, who suffered but survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide. I am capturing these stories, for multi-media use, and am planning a book this year.

Extracts from my artist’s statement are relevant here.

Life is always in motion, every moment creates a sense of place or personality. Having travelled and worked all over the world, my photography is informed by my view that we are more the same than we are different – yet differences reveal stories. Details matter.

I am seeking intimacy, rapport with and understanding of the subject, whilst asking questions about who people are, what they’re doing, and what concerns them. 

There are two audiences for the Cambodian work. First, in Cambodia, I want to contribute to further opening up the discussion about this painful subject, which is often hidden. And, secondly, internationally, I want to reach an audience who may have forgotten (or not even know) about the lessons of the Genocide.

John Berger wrote that:

The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears’. (1972, pg 29)

In the last webinar with Michelle, we talked of ways of communicating the personal stories via combining images and captions.

Of course, images should be strong enough to stand on their own, though one of the challenges of ‘aftermath’ is narrating the present day against the backdrop of yesterday. This is not a project about the aftermath of Chernobyl. Nor is it about photographs taken at the time of actual events. My project is about the present-day telling of terrible historical events.

Paul Seawright’s work on Sectarian Murder is an instructive example, where he photographed present day scenes of past murders, using captions to hold the narrative together. Other Influences include Sophie Ristelheuber and Judy Glickman Lauder.

Through 2018, I have increasingly focused on metaphorical imagery, as the overall narrative is partly factual / historical, and partly allegorical / future looking.


  • a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
  • a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else

The curtain of night fell upon us


  • a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one

Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of a spiritual journey

When I am in Cambodia, I always shoot with the stories of Sarath and others in mind. And, over the past year, my photography has become more abstracted, more metaphorical – partly to avoid some of the bear traps (dark tourism, picturesque, literal/obvious) and partly in an attempt to ‘stop’ the audience and help them think again about the subject matter.

I have also been experimenting with colour, black and white and infrared as ways of executing this.

Stepping back, it seems to me that the more metaphorical the photographs are, the more context is required to allow the images to come alive in supporting the narrative – witness the issue I had with a tutor that did not know my work at the F2F.

So, how should I think about captions and labelling? I have witnessed two basic approaches in galleries. Some people read the introduction, and study captions as they go around the exhibition. Others only look at captions on pictures that interest them.

Brown and Power note:

Captions are labels that refer to a specific object or image on display. They describe something about the object that the visitor can see and explain its significance or put it in context. Captions are often the only labels people will read in an exhibit and they will only read the captions of the objects that catch their eye‘. (2005, pg 107).

And the Tate conducted research on a Mark Rothko exhibition (2008), in which they found that:

  • 86 per cent were planning to read the wall texts
  • 61 per cent were planning to read the booklet made available for the show
  • 32 per cent were planning to use the multimedia tour (I suspect this number might be higher, today)

If forced to choose one resource, most people would opt for the wall texts.

For my project, I would prefer that the audience considers the image and caption together, or at least near simultaneously. Why? I feel the need for clarity, to be sure the meaning of each image relates to the narrative. I am also very conscious of my primary Cambodian audience, where visual literacy, frankly, is not universally high. If I am successful in my photography, it is unlikely that even that audience will recognise directly each place – some perhaps, but not too many.

There are of course many strategies to do this – writing on the image, images interspersed with text and so forth. I have experimented with several of these, and quite like the ‘Seawright’ solution – captions with each image.

In the examples below, the words are direct quotes from one of Sarath’s stories.

I think that this ‘dual’ approach would work well in an exhibition, though might not be best in a book, where spreads might work better. There is much experimentation to do, and I will be seeking feedback from tutors and fellow students, as I think this could be a valid (and potentially impactful) approach.

I can also see power in creating a video of these images and captions, which I will do.

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

Brown, Mary E. and Power, Rebecca. 2005. Exhibits in Libraries. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Hirsch, Robert. 2001. Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Ideas, Materials and Processes. Waltham: Focal Press.

Tate Gallery. 2008. Tools to Understand: An Evaluation of the Interpretation Material used in Tate Modern’s Rothko Exhibition. Available at (Accessed 17/03/2019).