Salgado's 'Exodus' Captures Human Face of War

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Acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado spent over six years documenting the travails of people — many of them children — fleeing from war, famine and natural disasters. His work is currently on view in "Exodus," an exhibit at the Leonardo Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah. Jenny Brundin of member station KUER reports.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Beginning in 1993, Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado spent six years trekking across 40 countries in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia. He took pictures of people on the move from war, famine and natural disasters. Three hundred of those pictures are currently on display at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, Utah. The exhibition is called "Exodus," and the black-and-white photographs document the hopes and fears of individuals caught in the waves of human migration. From member station KUER, Jenny Brundin prepared this profile.

JENNY BRUNDIN reporting:

For the past 30 years, Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado has traveled to the far reaches of the planet documenting the human condition with his camera, from coal miners in India to Senegalese construction workers in Paris. Salgado's photographs portray the world's people with humanity and dignity. He photographs, he says, to inspire us to reflect upon the human condition at the turn of the millennium and ultimately create a new way to coexist.

Mr. SEBASTIAO SALGADO (Photographer): People live in, you know, a beautiful place like Salt Lake City that are quite far away from Africa, from Latin America, from Asia, where 80 percent of the global population lives. That pictures show the majority of the behavior of this planet. We must show the society that ...(unintelligible) we must know how we are evoluting so inside our history.

BRUNDIN: In 1993, Salgado began documenting the millions of people who've left their homes on the move towards new destinies. They're migrants fleeing environmental degradation or poverty, refugees fleeing persecution and war, and exiles, like the Palestinians. Salgado spent six years and traveled in 40 countries. He captured shantytowns in the world's swollen megacities like Jakarta, Indonesia. There are photographs of Ecuadorian peasants trying to eke out an existence high in the mountains because the valleys are consumed by large cattle ranches. There are images of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, and Russian Jews fleeing to America.

Mr. KENT MILES ("Exodus" Exhibit Director, Leonardo Center): There are other issues here. This next gallery is about Asia.

BRUNDIN: Kent Miles is the project director for The Leonardo's "Exodus" exhibit. He says the photographs tell the story of one person or a group of people, but they also connect visitors to the massive social, political and human transformations that are taking place on the planet right now. He stops in front of a photograph of people walking on top of a massive pipeline running straight through the slums of Bombay, India. Women in sarees walk on top of it as if it were a sidewalk.

Mr. MILES: We have a huge pipeline, you know, that's rather elegant in its curve and graceful in the light, you know, bouncing on it from the sky. And it's big enough to be a thoroughfare for people to walk through this jumble of shantytown gathered up against it. And then the content rises and we ask, `Well, what is this pipeline?' It's a water pipeline. `Well, carrying water form where to where?' It's carrying it to the wealthy part of town, and the people that are living backed up to it don't have access to it. But again, the photograph, you know, gets us into the story in such an eloquent way.

BRUNDIN: Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote once that Salgado's camera reaches in to reveal the light of human life with tragic intensity, with sad tenderness. Kent Miles believes the subjects are not exploited or treated as objects, but as human beings, brothers and sisters. One photograph shows a group of Sudanese Lost Boys. They're fleeing civil war in their country, but in this moment they're entwined in the branches of a tree, resting comfortably, observing the photographer.

Mr. MILES: He looks and sees the very human gestures and expressions and relationships that exist even in the most extreme circumstances. And that is never lost sight of.

BRUNDIN: While some have criticized Salgado for the beauty in his photographs, even of the most desperate situations, Mexican poet Homero Aridjis says that's what makes Salgado a great photojournalist. That beauty is the dignity of his subjects. He believes Selgado's photos share another quality with great Latin American photographers of the past.

Mr. HOMERO ARIDJIS (Poet): One of the things that I like in Sebastiao Salgado photos is that not only he transmits the speed of place, but also the speed of our time, our humanity in motion.

Ms. TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (Writer): The image that haunts me, and is the one from Rwanda of the line of human beings walking on this ridge line.

BRUNDIN: Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams.

Ms. WILLIAMS: It was like seeing our species as a ghost, millions of people on the move with no place to go. We literally are a species displaced, and at what peril and at what consequence? And whether it's refugees or whether it's seeking refuge, what happens when we no longer have a place we call home? What happens when we no longer recognize the place we once called home?

BRUNDIN: There are now 100 million international migrants, a number that has almost doubled in the span of a decade, and many of them are children.

Mr. MILES: There's another interesting image here in the corner. Now this...

BRUNDIN: Part of the "Exodus" exhibit is a section of 40 portraits of children from around the world. The children asked Salgado to photograph them. Exhibit director Kent Miles points to a portrait of a young Afghan girl.

Mr. MILES: And you look at this face. That's an elegant face, her eyes and the way the light is coming across it, and this wonderful headpiece that wraps around her face. And then you look at her hands. And these are not hands of a child that we're used to seeing. These are hands that have done some real serious labor. Is this the way it ought to be? You know, he's asking us these questions.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. FRED RITCHIN (Director, PixelPress): We tend to want artists to be somehow neutral or on the side or not in the middle of things.

BRUNDIN: Fred Ritchin, the director of PixelPress, an online photography magazine and a former photography editor for The New York Times Magazine. He says the mission of a documentary photographer, pushing viewers to ask questions and seek connections, is one many Americans aren't used to.

Mr. RITCHIN: You know, it's like a Hollywood movie is art for us, but what we're talking about here is something quite different, which is pushing a social agenda and trying to make people to see, like Sebastiao's doing, that we're very connected to the person in Africa or Latin America, that we're all one planet, we're all together.

BRUNDIN: And for some visitors at the "Exodus" exhibit, the connections are very real. Viewing the photographs is an emotional experience for 14-year-old Fernando Coronell(ph), originally from Mexico.

FERNANDO CORONELL ("Exodus" Viewer): I feel badly because I see people struggling like that, picturing my family like that family. We used to hardly eat. We used--we didn't have no heat, neither, so we could barely live until we moved here. So we were kind of like that, with ripped clothes and all that. Makes me feel bad because, yeah, we were like that, too.

BRUNDIN: An admirer of Salgado's work once wrote, `To experience his work retrospectively is like seeing a satellite image with a human soul. Something shifts. You begin to realize how big and important the subjects he tackles are and how irrevocable the loss of land and life truly are.'

Still, most visitors leave the exhibit hopeful. Indeed, in the eyes of his subjects, Salgado himself saw hope.

Mr. SALGADO: For example, when I showed a lot of refugees in the roads, had to lose all their material goods, the only thing that were with them to push them in front was their instinct of survive and we think great hope for a new life. And they were not depressed, no. They had the future in front of them that was necessary to build. And this is incredible, you see, this--we are capable to build again, no? You know, to have a dream and to build inside the dream, or be destroyed back. Build again. And this for me is something very, very, very rich.

BRUNDIN: For NPR New, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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