Exercise 2-8: Information and expression 

Read John Mraz’s essay, ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’. Research the work by Salgado to which Mraz refers. 

In ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of seeing Latin America’, John Mraz explores the denotative and connotative aspects of documentary photography and argues that the documentary photograph should strive to create a visual metaphor that doesn’t lose immediate connection to what is depicted but at the same time refers to wider, universal issues.

Salgado is an interesting case study in terms of documentary photography – he is wildly successful and yet his work is criticised in vitriolic terms by “intellectuals and critics.” Mraz focuses on three of Salgado’s extended projects that focus on Latin America – ‘Other Americas’ (1986), ‘Terra: Struggle for the Landless’ (1997), ‘Migrations, Humanity in Transition’ (2000) – noting that although Salgado’s “imagery has provided much grist for the mills of intellectuals and critics, they have rarely singled out his representation of Latin America”. This does, however, suggest that Mraz would struggle more to base a defence on works produced outside of Salgado’s homeland. The essay is not without criticism of Salgado however, his first photobook ‘Other Americas’ (1986) comes in for much critique, although, this is used as the basis for an explanation about how Salgado’s ‘voice’ has developed towards his later work.

The main problem for ‘Other Americas’ for Mraz is Salgado’s concentration on images of peasant/rural areas and people – something he argues is motivated by the need to fulfil European and U.S. audience perception about what they had come to expect in depictions of the developing world, a stereotype that has been perpetuated about Latin America since the 1920s. The lack of industrial pictures could be explained by the notion that this is something western audiences are too familiar with in their own countries. The connotation of choosing rural subjects, however, is the suggestion that the problems of poverty, hunger and death are simply part of the landscape rather than as a result of class differences and inequality, that is, the problems are natural to Latin America. Salgado representing his homeland in picturesque and sometimes grotesque ways falls into the trap of the accepted discourse in developed countries for talking about the third world – the historical effects of capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism are unrepresented.

The Marxist concept of alienation is represented in the pictures through their formal composition – for example, beams and shadows separate and divide individuals, people do not communicate, their gazes cross but do not meet. For Mraz, this confirms his assertion that the purchases of Salgado’s work would be uninterested in depictions of Latin American proletariat: “But the alienation of individuals who embody an ‘Orientalist’ otherness is evidently a horse of a decidedly different colour.” 

The images in ‘Other Americas’ are symbols or metaphors rather than documents due to Salgado’s chosen mode of fine art photojournalism – the images are expressive rather than being concerned with information and the lack of context often fails to adequately explain the particularity of a situation. The lack of text is an issue as connotations are derived from the relationship of the images with each other – the reader is left floating in a timeless, eternal vacuum related to notions of magic realism – a postmodern tradition where poverty and the poor are seen mystically. Death is a recurring theme in ‘Other Americas’ and Mraz takes issue with the way Salgado represents this, sometimes grotesque, sometimes anguished, often enigmatic with a sense of estrangement – the context that so many die for economic reasons is missing.

Some examples:

This image of All Saints Day/dia de los Muertos is the opposite of the celebration that typifies the festival with a dog dominating the foreground and people lost in the fog in the background.

This picture showing children playing on with the bones of dead animals, while emphasising the evident poverty and absence of real toys, connotes resignation in the face of misery due to being captured from above.

This image featuring a cactus, a symbol of the Latin American landscape, shows the children seemingly imprisoned by the plant’s sharp points which again feeds into notions of being trapped in a dangerous, hopeless landscape – and the idea that their plight is natural rather than man-made.

With ‘Terra: Struggle of the Landless’ (1997), a documentation of the revolt of Brazil’s dispossessed peasants, something Salgado was also involved with on a practical level, Mraz argues that Salgado both addresses and corrects the failings of ‘Other Americas’ in what he describes as an act of self-criticism. The main difference in the two works is the extensive captions in the back of the book that provide context and link the images to the socioeconomic forces at work. The book is divided into two halves; the first emphasises the dignity and poverty which are inseparable companions for the rural pollution, the second half shows urban migration and rural land takeovers. The structure provides a historical sense to Latin America’s problems and prospects. The change in emphasis from pandering to a developed world audience to the aim of giving the disposed of Brazil a voice and agency is demonstrated with this image where seemingly abandoned toddlers are shown with a cityscape behind them – something Mraz reads as both a reflecting mirror and metaphor for the future of Brazil.

‘Migrations, humanity in transition’ (2000) builds on the successful presentation Salgado developed in ‘Terra’. Again, images are presented in a fine art format in which they are allowed to stand alone with an accompanying booklet providing context and explanation. This text subverts what the viewer first believes they have seen in the images – idyllic images of Brazilian Indians seemingly constructed as historical allusion about what life may have been like before the arrival of the Europeans. The pictures of seeming paradise bely the reality explained in the captions which decry their destruction with native cultures pushed to the brink of extinction: beautiful young Indian women are shown, the reality being that they are often victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by miners who encroach on their territory; a warrior chief stands proudly while the text warns that the Indians have become beggars in their own lands; the abandoning the land in Ecuador section shows women and children at work and play before explaining that the men have had to leave these rural areas to find work in the cities as the most fertile ground has been monopolised by wealthy cattle owners.

Thoughts: 

I began this exercise on the side of those who disparage Salgado but finish with a less certain view. It is clear that Salgado is motivated by a genuine wish to give the subjects he depicts agency and true that his work has done a great deal to achieve this as well as raising money for the organisations he has been involved with. Ultimately I find Mraz’s arguments a little heavy handed – he is very critical of ‘Other Americas’ while praising too fully the work that followed. The idea that all Salgado needed to do was provide context through accompanying text for the images seems a little simplistic – I have seen Salgado’s work many times over the years but have never seen it presented with this accompanying text, something that suggests the aesthetics are all important. The only photobook of Salgado’s I have seen is ‘Genesis’, a work that to my eye appeared problematic with an emphasis on the exotic ‘other.’ It is unfortunate that Mraz does not offer examples more clearly to illustrate his arguments as I am left having to make my own assumptions based on the images I have been able to research on the internet. My research led me to consider the validity or otherwise of the argument that it is the beauty of Salgado’s images that is problematic – a view that seems to suggest pictures of poverty and suffering must be gritty. This seems to say more about the guilt of those who look at the pictures than the images themselves. Despite this, I find myself thinking a great deal about the arguments presented by Rosler in ‘In and around, afterthoughts on documentary photography’ and still find these more compelling than these presented by Mraz, even if my view has been moved a little by his arguments.

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2 thoughts on “Exercise 2-8: Information and expression 

  1. johnsocadocumentary says:

    Hi Michael, a very thought-provoking post. I am starting to write my critical review and Salgado was one of the photographers I was looking at incorporating into my essay about beauty in documentary…
    Your point: ‘My research led me to consider the validity or otherwise of the argument that it is the beauty of Salgado’s images that is problematic – a view that seems to suggest pictures of poverty and suffering must be gritty.’ is one of the main topics I was looking to explore so I will reread the Mraz essay now for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael Millmore says:

      Hi John, thanks for looking. The ethics of aesthetic beauty in documenary is something I am thinking about as a subject for the critical​ review. I would recommend ‘The Cruel Radiance’ by Susie Linfield – she makes a number of arguments that I think you would be interested in.

      Like

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