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OCA Jose Navarro on Sebastiao Salgado's latest work - Genesis
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Can't make up my mind… thumb

Can't make up my mind…

© Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas

…about Salgado’s Genesis work. The images of his 8-year-long photographic project elicit a cocktail of emotions in me. Awe, sadness, admiration, anger. I feel them all pretty much at the same time. The diversity of emotions that Salgado’s work triggers is arguably one of its many strenghts. But it makes the job of conceptually processing his work rather challenging.


The people and landscapes in Salgado’s photographs of unspoiled cultures are awesome. As I write this post the sun is barely warming Bristol’s frosty pavements. In this chilly winter morning I feel awe about people who survive in conditions such as those found in the Siberian Arctic. Salgado’s images successfully connect individuals with feelings of common humanity. Salgado’s photographs provoke empathy. Humanist documentary cannot be conceived without it.


Anthropologist Malinowski said that the ethnographic object disappears the very moment of its recognition. Perhaps it is the implicit disappearance that is present in Salgado’s images that make me feel sad. Disappearance and evasion, for it seems that in the frozen wastes (‘wastes’ for us here in the West, obviously) of the Siberian Arctic the woman in the above photograph is escaping assimilation and modernisation (‘modern’ cultures, another Western construct). Barthes, you fastidious French thinker, why did you have to say that all you see in a photograph is Death? I can’t stop seeing Death in many of Salgado’s images.


No matter how many resources you may have, or funds, or time. 8 years focusing on a single theme demands commitment and strength of spirit. Salgado has my deepest admiration. I dont’t have what it takes to do that. I admire him. As poet Eduardo Galeano put it, “this is a man who sees”. And his vision helps us see too.


Here we go, it’s the ‘Curtis Sindrome’ all over again. Yes, Edward S. Curtis, who felt empowered  – with deep guilt? – to record a dignified North American Indian at the same time they were being driven to extinction. Did he mean to do that? Of course not. His cause was a noble one , like Salgado’s. However, Salgado’s images are as romantic as those taken by Curtis over 100 years ago. A good counterpoint to Salgado’s Nenets portfolio is Heidi Bradner’s Nenets. Bradner’s work is gritty and raw. As gritty and raw as the Siberian Arctic. I haven’t been there, I’m only guessing. But I’ve been to places where the thermometer falls well below freezing point. In those places romanticism is quickly replaced by the realisation of how quickly the cold gets into your bones, depriving you of your most vital warmth. That’s what I feel when I look at Bradner’s work. A different kind of empathy. Empathy felt by my body.

So I can’t make up my mind about Salgado’s Genesis; I’m too mixed up due to conflicting feelings, sadness being the prevailing one. Looking at the catalogue of Bernard Shapero’s rare books doesn’t help either. In many respects, Salgado’s work is conceptually no different to many of the photographs listed in the catalogue. Take image on p.52. Now go to Salgado’s Amazonas website and look for the photograph of an Upper Xingu woman being tattooed. What do you see in Salgado’s image? Do you see a tattoo being done or a woman’s body? Is it my fault to see the latter? Hardly.
And that’s the whole point I want to make: Salgado seems to ignore the complexity of contemporary visual language. In today’s visual-led society, that’s more than just a little reckless.

Posted by author: Jose
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24 thoughts on “Can't make up my mind…

  • What a beautifully constructed piece. Ending in a boomingly articulate point. Jose strikes again!
    I was at a study forum this week about the architecture of war and Eugene Atget was quoted by Paul Seawright as someone who wanted to ‘strip the image of it’s drama’. I thought it was a lovely description which stuck with me. I thought it would be nice if more photographers tried to do that, opting against highly sensationalised imagery, so overly romanticised.
    I would like to see Salgado apply that concept more too.

  • I felt hope. Our western world changes so rapidly and we are subject to so many pressures that we are often left bewildered. Salgado has pictured a people and a way of life that has endured unchanged. As the Guardian commentary put it, it’s not certain whether the Nenet follow the reindeer or vice versa.
    “Genesis is an attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition” Surely it’s gratifying that such places still exist despite all the gloom about environmental damage.

    • Chris…so very true. I’ve joined ‘trahumantes’ shepherds in Spain and also came to the conclusion that they follow the sheep and not the other way around. Come late May the sheep feel restless and start making a move north, no matter what the shepherds do. Come end October and the sheep feel it’s time to move back south.

  • I’m afraid I don’t see a lot of hope – certainly not as a record of the Nenets as they were/are, as the fastidious Frenchman’s quote reminds us, what we’re viewing is already in it’s death throes – much as everything else Salgado has recorded – however beautifully rendered. The South American miners dying for our gold, the sale of powdered reindeer horn to the Chinese to pay for vodka and fish, fish they probably once caught. In the scheme of time this is a short interlude in their history. But it is a record, though for whose or what benefit it is difficult to judge

  • I have some of the above emotions also, I get a bit stuck on “bewildered” bewildered because I keep thinking “why…” I just don’t get it for similar reasons as mentioned by Jose under “anger”, then I move on to “guilt” because i feel like there must be something wrong with me for not getting “compassion” but I just don’t from these images, they seem too divorced from reality for me to see them as I think I am supposed to.. What I see is that someone has spent a lot and time and effort aestheticising these people for me to look at and then I end up back on “why…”
    So the above is immensely reassuring Jose, as I was beginning to wonder if maybe I was just a deeply flawed human being:-)

  • I want to be picky and question your use of the phrase ‘unspoiled cultures’, especially in the context of what you then go on to say in the other sections, and your conclusions.
    I like Anne’s description, of seeing, ‘someone has spent a lot and time and effort aestheticising these people for me to look at …’. Aestheticising’s a new word for me – but if I can manage to actually say it, it’s going to become one I’m sure I’m going to use a lot.

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for contributing to the blog. Actually, the expression ‘unspoilt’ is not mine as such. I took it from Amazonas website – check the text introducing Genesis. I wouldn’t use such term to refer to cultures such as those Salgado recorded. I prefer terms such as ‘non-industrial societies’, or ‘indigenous societies’, which are fairer and truer to reality.
      Yes, the word ‘aestheticising’ is good, very good. A photographer who is often criticised for that is Edward Burtynsky. Have a look at his work and you’ll see why.

  • “Do you see a tattoo being done or a woman’s body? Is it my fault to see the latter? Hardly.”
    Having a male gaze, I initially see a tastefully erotic image but then my eye focuses on the piercing of her body and I look again.
    “makes the job of conceptually processing his work rather challenging.”
    How important is a conceptual understanding of an image!? Is delighting in the visual appeal of an image somehow superficial.
    To be honest, this is a question I ask but can not easily answer!

    • If, when we first see the picture, we see a naked female body, we are viewing with western eyes and judging against western ideals. That is understandable and quite natural. But what the picture really represents is a way of life that has endured. If we misinterpret it, is it a result of our lack of understanding or of the artists rendition?

      • “Western eyes” … not sure what you mean by “Western” here .. Eastern eyes in my experience have just as much interest in the naked form … of course, if one can not move beyond the sensuality of the image then one is missing something … one quality I like about this image is the way that after the initial and quite natural impression, there is more to discover.
        Wonder what anyone with a “female” gaze might think of this image!?

        • My original question was about whether a photographic image needs to be conceptual. Can one just look at a photo without needing to read it?
          The vast majority of people seem to look at an image and respond to it’s artistic qualities rather than trying to prise meaning out of it.
          Frankly, I think Salgado’s images work on both levels. However, Jose is making a point here which I can not at present grasp.
          Thanks Jose. I like such challenges as long as they do not give me a headache!

        • I am female, so I’ll offer my view! I think that a photographer has a choice about how they photograph anything. You could photograph a woman being tatooed quite differently from this, so you make particular choices based on how you want your image to be seen. In this case the choices the photographer has deliberately made encourage us to view and see her in a particular way that appears “natural” but is actually contrived by him. I ask myself what reasons he has to portray her in this particular way and that’s why I feel bewildered – the kind of reasons that come to my mind seem like they come from another era.
          I know I have western eyes but I’ve tried to see other viewpoints and learn from them by reading writers like Edward Said.

      • As Anned recommended….Edward Said’s “Orientalism” is a must read for anyone interested in visual anthropology and visual representations of other cultures.

    • Depends what we look at Amano. We can’t get rid of our cultural baggage. Here, a nude body presented like that has inevitable erotic connotations. Perhaps Salgado wanted to emphasise purity and innocence. Perhaps those qualities exist over there. I don’t know; I haven’t been there. May be that’s a myth anyway – cruelty and ugliness exist in every culture. In any case we can only read that image through the filter of our culture; it’s inevitable.

  • Does ‘unspoiled’ necessarily mean good and to be strived for. I certainly wouldn’t want to live their (probably relatively short) lives. Did Salgado ask them what kind of life they wanted to live? Is this what you mean Jose – that Salgado pictures his own ‘romantic’ view of them and omits the messiness of their lives, the pain, hunger. I also have conflicting thoughts regarding change v wanting things to stay the same in the old traditional way. If, for instance, the world population had remained within their cultures of, say, 700 years ago, what would life be like now? I suppose I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of need and how we require to be warm, nurtured and fed before we can go on to higher thought.
    It would be good to see a project which showed balance. One which shows how ‘modernism’ is being attained in very small steps and how a population can grow and thrive without destroying its own environment. If there is such!
    Regarding the girl and the tattoo – For me, the light fell in such a way that I had an overall, rapid, impression of her face looking down, beyond her arm, to her thigh, To me, it certainly wasn’t about the tattoo but about the human form in its gracefulness. I found it sensual rather than erotic.

    • Catherine, yes, Maslow’s pyramid…good and pertinent point. In my opinion Salgado’s ‘unspoilt’ cultures are an ideal. A Platonic ideal if you will. An ideal that, truly, doesn’t exist anymore. To an extent they are a projection of Salgado’s own ideal view of non-industrial – aka. ‘unspoilt’ – cultures.
      There is a fine line between sensual and erotic. Which side of the line the gaze falls depends, primarily I guess, on whether that gaze is male or female. Salgado is a male photographer. Anned put it very nicely…”a photographer has a choice about how they photograph anything…”

  • My gaze fell firstly on the woman’s body. That was nearly enough to make me move on, not because the image isn’t tasteful, but because I’m not particularly interested in images of other womens bodies. Then I noticed the tattoo, though I wasn’t immediately aware it was a tattoo. At first glance on my small screen laptop the tattoo looked like a nasty wound held together by stitches. I was then distracted by the line in the top right corner that disappears behind the girl’s head which for me makes the girl appear to be straining against a leash. That made the image a little more uncomfortable to look at until I noticed the child being held in the background.
    I’m not sure what to feel about Salgado’s work, it does feel like its from another era. Mostly I feel a great sadness for a disappearing world. From reading Part One of The Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield it seems that Salgado’s work is often charged by the critics with being too beautiful and too well composed for the subject matter.

  • Jose I guess I am like you in that I also can’t make up my mind – to me this is a strength not a weakness – to be open minded allows one’s intelligence to function !?!

    • it is most definitely a strength Amano. Asking questions and not taking anything for granted is crucial in photography. Photography is a language after all. It helps people communicate and exchange information. It facilitates dialogue. It fosters understanding and tolerance.

  • Great piece of writing Jose. Got me thinking about all sorts of things. There really is no comparison between the two photographers. It’s like comparing a Charlie Waite with a Don McCullen landscape, Salgado’s beautifully posed, with just the right light, taken at just the right moment. It looks as though stylists and make up artists and assistants made sure there was nothing out of place, whereas Bradner’s images are a social comment showing the subjects warts and all, they look as though they were unposed and ‘real’. Both are great photographers, although I must say I spent much more time looking at and being shocked and angered by Bradner’s work.

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