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Published 12/06/2013 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Sebastião Salgado: Genesis

Natural History Museum, London
11 April–8 September 2013

by BEN WIEDEL-KAUFMANN

Genesis is one of three bodies of work by the Brazilian born photographer Sebastião Salgado that pushes at the conceptual and practical limitations of the photographic project. Completed over the last eight years with photographs taken in 32 countries and across the most remote parts of the world, it is, like Migrations and Workers before it, a formidable undertaking.

The exhibition and book – designed by Salgado’s wife and long term collaborator Lélia Wanick Salgado – revisit the classical and by now near trademark design principles of former projects, with gentle alternating formats and curt informative captions, to provide an impressive and highly apposite presentation of the work.

The primary accounts of photography (by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, for example) seem strangely deficient when it comes to the power of the photographic project. Yet, in their ability to transcend the much vaunted punctum of the individual scene by yielding for presentation a number of (more or less) “decisive moments” to be juxtaposed one aside the other in a considered sequence of propositions, long-term projects embody a significant contribution to the medium’s power. Extending beyond the kind of theoretical and aesthetic debates of singular images that have largely dominated the critical discourse, photographic projects can create a context and narrative by which the individual resonance of the works is framed within a broader argument. In an age in which a proliferation of dismembered images confronts us like never before, Salgado has once more set a benchmark for the potential of a reasoned and extensive body of work.

Workers and Migrations – Salgado’s two preceding projects on a similar scale – stand out as two of the more absorbing photographic projects of the late 20th century; adding a sense of unfettered internationalism to the trope of engaged humanist photography. Whilst debates have raged over Salgado’s style – his ability to make aestheticised Gods of mortals in often highly strenuous circumstances – these are bodies of work that continue to offer fresh intrigue and complexity. My theoretical worries about the role of beauty, artistry and aesthetics in photography, are consistently undone by renewed contact with the diverse and sophisticated propositions of the photographs – their graphic clarity but the hook in projects that speak of the interconnectivity, dignity and resilience of humanity across some of the diverse situations of our age. Photographs like those Salgado took of the goldmines in his native Brazil, with figures rising like ants from Bosch’s inferno, for me offered the kind of transformative experience Susan Sontag described before the photographs of Auschwitz, constituting an experience around which my life could be divided and giving form to a nascent conception of economic injustice in the modern world. They are lasting testaments to the power of the photographic medium.

If Workers and Migrations took a familiar trope of engaged humanist photography to shine light and historical insight into two of the defining phenomenon of our age, Genesis is of a different order. As the Press Release states (in what is perhaps the smooth gloss we may expect of a production team who have managed to pull off such organisational feats again and again), the project was born out of the desperation Salgado felt in having witnessed the extreme suffering captured in his Migrations project; from a crisis of faith in humanity. Led through this ground zero through his return to Brazil and a reforestation project on his family’s cattle ranch, Genesis constitutes an essentially escapist attempt to connect with what the photographer calls “pristine nature” – those areas of the world as yet untouched by the hand of “modern man”.

In approaching the theme Salgado retains his trademark black and white imagery and startling graphic compositions. A great proportion of the work, however, forsakes the human subject and in its stead takes on landscape scenes and wildlife photography. In making this transition Salgado once more proves his immense abilities (and extensive resources). From the stark contrasts of the glacial valleys of Alaska to the expansive sand dunes of the Sahara, the landscape scenes reveal a compositional skill and eye for pictorial drama that is a match for Ansel Adams or Paul Strand. The best (though not all) of the wildlife photographs carry a sense of human identification and a poetic framing that pushes beyond informative intrigue of National Geographic or amateur safari snaps. Be it in the scene of a gorilla taking off across the dunes, the aerially viewed penguin colonies in the windswept expanses of Antarctica or the family of elephants stacked into each other in the African plains, Salgado’s control of motif, structure, spatial mystery and his own elusive presence yields images that capture the imagination and hold their own amongst his distinguished body of preceding work.

The problems emerge when we begin to move beyond the sublime of the individual scenes towards the synthesised message of the project. For, juxtaposed alongside the apparently “pristine” landscapes (which Salgado implies are “untouched since the creation”!) are those people whom according to Salgado, “continue to live in harmony with nature” – the tribes of Papua New Guinea, Africa and Latin America, the Inuits of Canada. In juxtaposing these two thematic concerns Salgado hopes to impel us towards a preservation of the natural world – through its conspicuous absence presenting modernity as a force that is somehow external to an essential and underlying harmony.

Whilst perhaps well suited to the more uncritical fringes of the current environmental movement this essentially Romantic and 19th-century imaginary seems distinctly problematic. Convenient as it is to escape from the realities of the modern world by sublime fantasy or veneration of the primitive, the reassertion of mythologies regarding the essential harmony of the “noble savage” with pristine, untouched nature seem difficult to swallow. Splitting humanity into a doomed disequilibrium and idealized primitive harmony – and ignoring the diverse environmental and social balances that the last 200 years of intellectual thought and scientific research have done so much to uncover, it reeks of Romantic positivism. As Nietzsche put it: “Think of being such as nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions, without mercy or justice, at once fruitful, barren and uncertain; think of indifference itself as a power - how could you live according to such indifference?”

The means by which this questionable foundation impacts upon the project are multiple. On the one hand – by recuperating an essentially 19th-century vision Salgado runs up against photography’s tendency to neutralize its power through over-familiarity. As Susan Sontag saw it, the fact that, “[p]hotographs shock in so far as they show something novel”. Looking at Salgado’s artfully composed images we are all too often reminded of their precedents – the frontally posed natives captured by 19th-century ethnographic expeditions, the sublime landscapes of the Romantic painters or the more recent exoticism of the travel supplements. With little but the strident internationalism of the projects scope and Salgado’s clear, aesthetic eye to break through our expectations, we are often left – for all the professed otherness – firmly in the terrain of the familiar.

Perhaps more significantly Salgado runs up against a further limitation – for as Sontag again saw it, ‘the images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a historical situation. The more general they are the less likely they are to be effective’. Put differently, photography’s power to partake in our understanding of the world – and act, as Salgado hopes, as a catalyst to action - is related to its ability to transcend generalities and appeal to historically conditioned empathy. Whilst Salgado’s photographs have always, in a sense, veered towards the general through their creation of monumental archetypes, his previous work has tended to do so within the realm of conditions to which we can relate – those in which modernity is rooted (work, migration, economic exploitation, humanitarian disasters). In seeking out types in which modernity (and indeed history) is entirely absent (or at least professed to be so) - we are often left with aestheticised platitudes, simplistic idealisations of our absence – a one sided lament.

The project pushes towards such platitudes in several ways. On the one hand, in the absence of a clearly defined connectivity, the pan-global focus leads to a vague equivalence of distinct realities. Rather than the kind of relatively in depth focus on specific communities that could perhaps have been compiled from the stock of imagery Salgado gathered – Genesis transports us between the dunes of the Sahara, the stick fights of the Surma, the singsing festivals of New Guinea and the penguins of the Arctic as if the shared absence of the “modern world”, the lingering slurry of 19th-century mythology and the beautifying touch of the photographer’s lens were a meaningful enough basis of comparison. In the process the exploration of individual differences is downplayed – the cattle herding communities of the Sahara are equated with the hunter-gatherers of the Amazon, or the Elephant Seals of the Arctic circle – and of course modernity (the only perspective which in fact links them all) is consistently presented as anathema to all.  

The sheer breadth of this scope also means that unlike, say, Don McCullin’s collection of photographs amassed in Africa across the last half-century, or Claudia Andujar’s 40-year study of the Yanomami Indians, Salgado was limited to a series of 32 two-month journeys. For all Salgado’s skills, therefore, the photographs of the isolated communities covered in this project tend to push towards stereotype. Where Claudia Andujar captures, with a technique and insight developed over several decades, the spiritual practices and ceremonies of the Yanomimi Indians, Salgado tends to give us more commonplace stereotypes – Amazonian Indians hunting, fishing and bathing. Where McCullin often deconstructs the formality of a portrait scene with casual details (children playing in the background), Salgado tends to give us frontal, hierarchical clarity. More disturbingly where Andujar or McCullin give us the incursions of the modern world into the scenes – be it in the strangely terrifying governmental mugshots of the Yanomimi or the automatic rifles carried by the Surmi people – Salgado offers us a self-confessed whitewash of such incursions: “Some might wear second-hand clothes distributed by evangelical groups, but I wanted to show the ceremonial attire and tribal customs.” Whilst in the catalogue text he admits to the presence of automatic rifles in the place of bows and arrows amidst the Dinka these do not appear in the photographs – nor do the tourists from whom the Ghanzi District community now earn their existence.

It is through this insistent and cherry-picked emphasis of otherness – enshrined by the foundational premise of the project, but also by the selective editing of its unfolding – that Genesis veers towards the aestheticisation of the subject and more importantly towards a negation of history. Without the underlying historical rooting – a dialectic pull, an acknowledgement of the complex flux and anthropological positioning of the human subjects, an attempt to penetrate beyond the mythologies of eternal harmony – the photographs partake in a nostalgic drive: a collective desire for primitive amnesia, which leaves us disempowered and the subject objectified and removed. Collectively the subjects stand, not as individuals – or even parts of a continuous realm of existence – but as others, symbols of a reality to which we do not belong. Through the juxtapositions of the project, the people are presented to be as distant to us as the landscapes, which have thus far escaped our grasp. What is deemed universal, however, is beauty, and an attendant state of implied natural harmony. It is an outdated mythology and it is hard to believe that such a collective statement can do more than travel supplements to arouse our will to protect and understand.

The best of the photographs in this exhibition break through the overriding alienation of the theme. In the photograph of two Mursi girls with their lips stretched around lip plates, the mixture of dignity and mystery in their expressions, the tonal contrast and the stunning balance of the composition enrapture, forcing us to look afresh at the mutilation and question the boundaries of moral relativism and aesthetic truth. In the portrait of the Zo’é women painting themselves with urucum berries, the contrast of the linear pattern of the reeds against the wonderfully composed group of soft fleshed women holds a sensual charm reminiscent of Titian’s nymphs – yet the photograph also carries a casual descriptiveness – a glimpsed instant of a very distinct body politic and mode of social interaction revealed in the casualness with which the figures are grouped and attending to their bodies. An image of the Dinka bringing their cattle to water at a desert well, once more aligns composition with description – the commitment to the animals, the modes of social and physical organisation all balancing within the stacked framing. In the aerial photograph of a penguin colony the grouping of the animals on the edge of the abyss and the stark tonal contrast established by the scene carry a pathos that seems to draw upon the rubric of the goldmine scenes.

As a series of individual photographs there is much, therefore, that will be cherished and returned to, and much, I suspect, that will become treasured over time. On first inspections, however, it seems lamentable that Salgado, in turning away from his studies of the modern world, has veered towards so Romantic a position. In doing so he has compromised the ability of his project to mobilise moral conscience, and pushed it dangerously towards aesthetic exercise. As Sontag suggested, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and can help build a nascent one”. It remains unseen as to whether they can resuscitate a forsaken one – and what, if any, the positive effects of such resuscitation might be. More likely, however, is that they will provide eye-candy for Romantic sentimentalists, for “photographs which cannot themselves explain anything are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy”. We would do well to be conscious of this.



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