Can't make up my mind…
…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.