New Internationalist

My Pictures Look Like My Life

Issue 239

new internationalist
issue 239 - January 1993

My pictures look like my life
Sebastião Salgado talks to David Ransom about how he
works and what goes into creating his photographs.

My pictures look like the light I saw when I was a child in my village in Brazil, like all my friends and relations, the people I trust, like the ideology I developed and the political change I want to see in my country. In the end I believe that my pictures must look like this, like my life, just as your magazine must look a little bit like you in a certain way.

Work is like the seam of my jeans, that links together the fabric of all humanity. For six years I worked on a project, a kind of fragmentation of this universe. I went to some 40 or 50 different sectors of production, not just manufacturing industries but mines, oil fields, agriculture. I observed a lot, I learned a lot and I came out of it a changed man, no longer the person I was when I began.

In 1987 I took pictures of steel workers in the Ukraine and France when they were separated by a huge ideological gulf as well as by national borders. But I think that in the end these separations don't really exist. If you go somewhere and close your eyes for a minute and imagine that they are not there, all you see before you is a family of workers, and families within families all around the world.

I worked with sugar-cane workers in Brazil, for example. They resemble closely the sugarcane workers of Cuba: the way they lie down on the ground to rest, the way they smile, their kindness and their aggression, they are really so similar. The tobacco workers in Cuba, who were no more than 50 kilometres away from the sugarcane workers, were completely different.

You know, it's very strange this, the way people come to resemble what they produce. I once discussed this with Eduardo Galeano (the Uruguayan writer, see next article), who is a very close friend of mine. He said: "Sebastião, it's incredible, you know. When I lived in Barcelona, many years ago, we always went to buy chickens from a particular farm. A woman looked after the chickens and each time we went there she looked more and more like a chicken, and after many years she even began to speak like a chicken."

Steel workers are very powerful-looking people. They know they are at the centre of industrial society, what they produce turns up in construction, in shipyards, car factories, everywhere. Nobody taught them at school that what they do is very important, but they know it is. The way they dress, with their special hoods and protective clothing, they become like priests in front of the fumace, this huge cathedral of fire.

I am part of a family that does this kind of documentary photography. You must spend time, a lot of time, doing it. You must live with the people you photograph. For me it is a great pleasure to enter into these relationships. Of course I am not a worker in the sense that I am doing the work that they are. I am a photographer. What I want to be is in some small way a part of their environment, to leam about what is happening in front of my eyes, receiving from them and learning, not judging.

That's very important. You bring things with you, knowing about light, composition, the jobs they do, many things that have given you the reason to be there. But really you have come to learn, because you know the theory, not the practice - you don't know anything. You must learn to see the complete person before you. You must be there to receive. And when you do, the relationship you have with that person is very interesting and very, very powerful. Things go as they must go.

You know, everyone likes to be photographed. You have to discover what is hidden from view: what it is that work gives to people, what they want from their work, what they want it to show, that it's a really important thing in their lives. At the moment when the photographer understands this, any contradictions in what you are doing disappear.

Spending 15 months in Africa doing a story about starvation was such an important thing for me. There was this huge drama going on. I had to act as a vector to the outside world. You might imagine that people living in the heart of Sudan, very close to nature, don't know about cameras. But they do know, even if they've never seen a photograph. They understand it's important. I believe that people always understand about what is essential, really essential.

My wish in doing this series of pictures about work is to pay a kind of homage to a working class that is disappearing, in whose name I was militant in my country for many years, thinking it would achieve power. But it has gone. These are new times needing new ideas. A homage is a romantic view in a kind of way. But it's not romantic work. It's hard, hard work. I come out of the experience feeling very proud to be part of a human species that can create such wonderful things.'

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