In the light of my tutor’s suggestions, I have revised this assignment as an academic paper, with added images. The text of the new version can be viewed below:
The image I have chosen to review for this assignment is by Sebastião Salgado and comes from his series Other Americas/Otras Americas (1982). I happened to see it recently in a small exhibition of his work at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, and was immediately struck by its resemblance to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
© Sebastião Salgado – México, 1980
Fig. 1. México (1980)
Sebastião Salgado (1944-) needs little introduction. He is a Brazilian polymath whose work spans the period from the mid 1970s to the current day. He describes himself as a radical political photo-journalist (Salgado, 2013) and his mission is to document disappearing societies, migrations and extreme poverty, and to bring them to public attention. Other Americas was his first book on South America, and he has subsequently produced another, Terra (1997), which addressed some of the criticisms of his first book. He describes his research for Other Americas as his way of reconnecting with his native land after a period of living in Europe. Over seven years, he travelled the continent, documenting the common experience of the poor of religion, changing ways of life, family and death in a wholly Latin American way – ‘mysterious, suffering, heroic and noble.’ (Salgado, 2015, p11).
The Image – México, 1980
The image is only titled as México, 1980 in Salgado’s book, but elsewhere I have gleaned that the subjects are apparently Praying to the Mixe God, Kioga in thanks for a good harvest. (Salgado, 1980, 2013) The Mixe religion is a syncretic mix of Roman Catholicism and ancient Meso-American beliefs, (Lippe, 1991; Mooney, 1911), and therefore my first impressions were correct. I have been unable to find any specific explanation for the story from Salgado himself.
México, 1980 shows two figures balanced atop a small mound, both with arms outstretched and supporting each other on their precarious perch. They are looking down into the clouds below, and are evidently standing on a steep hill. Elsewhere in the picture are several scruffy pine trees and a number of apparently dead branches, all pointing up, angularly. The image is monochrome, contrasted, dark in tone, and quite grainy. Salgado felt that colour would adversely affect the uniformity of his subjects’ experiences, and that it added a sense of drama to their lives. (Giordano, 2013; Cumming, 2013)
The composition is slightly off-centre to emphasise the void below, with the two men occupying the left line of thirds. The middle and right line are occupied by two equally vertical pine trees. Alongside the cross shape made by the men there is a strong diagonal from the top right to bottom left, again emphasising the void. Both men are dressed in rectangular ponchos, and they appear at angular odds with the chaotic vegetation around them.
Taking a semiotic view (Chandler, 2007), one can equate the precarious stance of the men with their current cultural position in society. The scrubby pine trees are resonant of a slowly dying eco-system. The void connotes emptiness and distance, while the branches sticking up look like spikes upon which the men might fall. The men themselves are facing away, connoting mystery, and their positions (clearly religious in nature) are alien to our own Western experience, giving a sense of Otherness. Overall, the image overtly portrays a culture on the edge of an abyss.
However, one can also look at it another way. Two grown men are teetering together on a tiny mound, each holding onto the other for balance; their arms outstretched, as if they are about to dive off the cliff. They look as if they might be long-term friends, who are fooling about and pretending to fly. The image could have been taken any time in the last 500 years, as so little has changed for them.
Mraz’s critique of Salgado’s work suggests that the series Other Americas is dour, gloomy and obsessed by religion and death (Mraz, 2002). I disagree. While obviously dealing with some of the more difficult matters around poverty and the fundamental inclusion of religion into everyday life, the images to me speak of family, love, the mystery and magical realism that is prevalent throughout Latin America. There is also an underlying strength born of an innate understanding of their environment, and something which no-one seems to mention – a sense of surrealist fun. Many of the images, such as these shown here, have quirks which repay a second look; the child’s hand on the leg (p57), the woman holding the chick (p106), the face at the window, and the cheeky smile (p74-75).
© Sebastião Salgado – México, 1980
Fig. 2 My own photograph of image from Salgado’s “Other Americas, p. 57 (2016)
© Sebastião Salgado – México, 1980
Fig. 3. My own photograph of image from Salgado’s “Other Americas, p. 106 (2016)
© Sebastião Salgado – México, 1980
Fig. 4 My own photograph of image from Salgado’s “Other Americas, p. 74-75 (2016)
Salgado’s work has frequently been criticised, and he has been accused variously of sentimentalism, superficiality, an obsession with composition over content, beautifying suffering and posing his subjects. (Sischy, 1991; Levi-Strauss, 1992; Sontag, 2002; Markogiannis, 2015) However, Terry Barratt argues that “the objects of interpretations are images, not image-makers” (Barrett, 2010; p 164) and I feel that much of the criticism of Salgado focuses on the man, his motives and his supposed lack of inside knowledge of his subjects. His aim of forcing images of extreme poverty and suffering into the public gaze is patently genuine, but his work are undeniably beautiful, which is problematic. His images are central to the argument about the aesthetics of tragedy, and stand in stark contrast to the grittier approach favoured, for example, by his direct contemporary, Don McCullin
(Levi-Strauss, 1992; Foster, 2002; Sontag, 2002; Linfield, 2010).
© Sebastião Salgado – México, 1980
Fig.5. Starving 24 year old woman with child, Biafra (1968)
Levi-Strauss (1992) argued that aesthetic art is not authentic art, while anti-aestheticists believe that making suffering appear beautiful is disrespectful and minimises both its impact and its experience. (Foster, Sontag, 2002)
When it comes to truthfulness, I believe that Salgado is incorrectly being judged as a photo-journalist rather than as a documentarian. He is accused of staging (Markogiannis, 2015) and therefore subverting the indexical nature of the images. But is there Truth in any photography? The photographer will always influence the end result, because of his/her assumptions, and what he/she wants to say, while the viewer imbues the image with his/her own context and experience. (Barthes, 1967) Nowadays, documentary photographers are no longer bound to record indexically. As Anna Fox said in her lecture at the UCA last year, as long as it is clear that an element of staging occurred in order to get the point across, what is the problem? The indexical nature of photographs is breaking down, and along with a re-evaluation of the belief in the anti-aesthetic, (Steigerwald, 2011; Blunk, 2015) perhaps Salgado’s work may be reappraised more positively in the future.
Barrett, Terry (2010) ‘Principles for Interpreting Photographs.’ In: Swinnen, J & Deneuilen, L.(eds.) The Weight of Photography: Photography History Theory and Criticism. Brussels: ASP, pp.: 147-172 [online] At: http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PriIntPho_10.pdf (Accessed on 27 January 2016)
Barthes, Roland (1967) The death of the author. [online] At: https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/download/attachments/74858352/BarthesDeathOfTheAuthor.pdf (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Blunk, Tim (2010) Sebastião Salgado: The Modernist Deconstruction of Cynicism. William Paterson University [online] At: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280937142_Sebastiao_Salgado_The_Modernist_Deconstruction_of_Cynicism (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: The basics. Routledge.
Cumming, Laura (2013) Sebastião Salgado; Genesis – Review [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/apr/14/sebastiao-salgado-genesis-review (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
Foster, H. (2002) The anti-aesthetic: Essays on postmodern culture. New York: New Press.
Giordano, A. (2013) ‘Salgado, Broomberg and Chanarin: Lessons learned’, Writing About Photography, June. Available at: http://writingaboutphotography.net/salgado-broomberg/ (Accessed: 26 January 2016)
Levi-Strauss, David (1992) ‘The Documentary Debate : Aesthetic or Anaesthetic’. In: Strauss, D. L. and Berger, J. (2012) Between the eyes: Essays on photography and politics. 2nd edn. United States: Aperture Foundation. [online] At: http://www.michaelbuhlerrose.com/india/DocumentaryDebate.pdf (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. University of Chicago Press.
Lippe, Frank J. (1991), The Mixe of Oaxaca: Religion, ritual and healing. University of Texas Press
Markogiannis, N. (2015) ‘Aesthetics and ideology of Sebastião Salgado’, New York Photography Diary, 8 June. Available at: http://ny-photography-diary.com/sebastiao-salgado-by-nerris-markogiannis/ (Accessed: 26 January 2016).
Mooney, J. (1911). ‘Mixe Indians’. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. [online] At: New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10408a.htm (Accessed on 9 January 2016);
Mraz, John (2002) ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America.’ [online] In: Third Text 16 (1) pp. 15-30 At: http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/mraz_salgado.pdf (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
Orr, Gillian (2015) ‘Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado captures the essence of a continent in his series Other Americas.’ In: The Independent [online] At: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/photography/brazilian-photographer-sebasti-o-salgado-captures-the-essence-of-a-continent-in-his-series-other-10487443.html (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
A Photo Teacher (2008) Sebastião Salgado and Good Intentions. [online blog]At: http://aphototeacher.com/2008/03/26/sebastiao-salgado-and-good-intentions/ (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
Photographers’ Gallery (2015) ‘Sebastião Salgado Other Americas.’ [online] At: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/sebastia-o-salgado-other-americas-2 (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
Riding, Alan (1986) ‘Faces of the Other Americas’. In: The New York Times [online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/07/magazine/faces-of-the-other-americas.html (Accessed on 9 January 2016)
Salgado, Sebastião . (1980) Thanksgiving prayer to the Mixe god Kioga in gratitude for a good harvest. Mexico. New York: Sandaram Tagore Gallery. Available online at: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/sebastiao-salgado-thanksgiving-prayer-to-the-mixe-god-kioga-in-gratitude-for-a-good-harvest-mexico (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Salgado, Sebastião (1997) Terra, Struggle of the Landless. London: Phaidon Press.
Sebastiao Salgado The silent drama of photography. (2013). [YouTube video] TED. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH4GAXXH29s (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Salgado, Sebastião . (2013) Photographs. Lot 98. New York: Bonhams. Available at: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21017/lot/98/ (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
Salgado, Sebastião (2015 edition) Other Americas. New York: Aperture
Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Photography: Good Intentions.’ In The New Yorker, 9 September. [online] At: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf/ (Accessed on 17 January 2016)
Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding The Pain of Others. Penguin.
Stallabrass, Julian (1997) ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism.’ New Left Review, 223
Jessica Steigerwald (2011) Substance, Not Style; The Nexus of Concerned Photography. Imaging International Conflict. [online] At: http://www.torophoto.org/documents/imagingconflict.pdf (Accessed on 26 January 2016)
McCullin, D. (1968) Starving 24 year old woman with child, Biafra. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/mccullin-starving-twenty-four-year-old-mother-with-child-biafra-ar01204 (Accessed on 12 May 2016).
Salgado, S. (1980), Mexico [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.fotografodigital.com/libros-de-fotografia_/otras-americas-el-primer-libro-de-sebastiao-salgado-reeditado-por-la-fabrica-150420/ (Accessed 24 January 16)].
Other images are my own, taken of pages in Salgado’s Other Americas.
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
I am not sure that materials, technical skills and design really enter into this assignment, as it is about someone else’s work. Regarding observational skills, I have found it useful to really look at a single image, and to unpick what the photographer is trying to say. One could just glance at the image and see the main points, but there is another layer of meaning underneath if one takes the time to let it sink in. I have also learned that some images should really be seen as part of a series, and that the whole series may have meaning that is not apparent in the single image. It is the building up of the story that brings insight.
Quality of outcome
Before starting this assignment, I carefully read the requirements on the OCA site. When I began researching Salgado, I discovered that a great deal has been written about his work, often in an uncomplimentary way. However, it was very useful for my research and I was led into looking at concepts such as the truth in photography, aesthetics and the ethics of photographing suffering, and semiotics. This was the first time in my academic career where I felt that I was properly prepared to write an essay, and I am satisfied that I did the best I could (also a first).
I hope that I have been successful in taking the image, examining it, interpreting it, and then widening my thoughts to encompass the work of Salgado as a whole, and how critical theory can be applied to it.
Demonstration of creativity
Again, I do not think that creativity is a significant part of this assignment, as the remit is quite tight, and very clear. I have tried to give my own opinion of Salgado’s work, and not to simply regurgitate the ideas of other people.
I did a fair bit of background research for this assignment, both on Salgado, and on the critical thinking framework within which his early work is judged. He seems to be a Marmite photographer – you either love his work or hate it. Given more space, I would have gone into the state of critical thinking during the 1980s and how Salgado’s work ran counter to the prevailing ideas on anti-aestheticism, photojournalism and the ethics of photographing war and suffering. Two of my other blog posts, here and here go into this in more detail.
Overall, I found this assignment much more interesting than I had thought it would be, and I am beginning to think that I should do Understanding Visual Culture for my next module.