Elevating the common man: His portraits glorify the worker. But his critics think too much glory has accrued to Salgado himself

SEBASTIAO SALGADO, the Brazilian photographer, is the most famous photojournalist working today. This means that his photographs are exhibited in private galleries and public museums around the world, that he can command enormous fees from magazines and newspapers, that he receives massive sponsorship ( pounds 1m from Kodak for his most recent six-year project), sells prints for between pounds 800 and pounds 1,800 each, and is deemed worthy of major articles in magazines such as Rolling Stone and the New Yorker.

That this has happened to Salgado is the source of a great deal of trouble in the world of photography. Salgado is a member of Magnum, the photographic co-operative founded in 1947 and closely associated with socially concerned photography. Much of his work concentrates on areas of poverty and suffering, and its elevation to the world of art, via gallery and museum walls, has not found favour with the critics, while his large advances for photographic projects have aroused jealousy among other photographers. In the backlash to this success, his pictures have been criticised as being too romantic, too beautiful, more concerned with aesthetics than reportage. In her antipathetic piece for the New Yorker in 1991, Ingrid Sischy wrote: 'It isn't fair to make Salgado responsible for how we do or do not respond to the content of his pictures, but there are certain gimmicks and attitudes in them that seem designed to trigger specific reactions and reflexes that are insulting to the people being portrayed.'

In two weeks' time we can judge for ourselves when the exhibition of Salgado's latest project, 'Workers', a study of manual labour throughout the world, opens at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the latest stop on its tour around the five continents. There will also be an Omnibus programme about the photographer, a special show and sale of his prints at the Photographers' Gallery in London; there will be criticism and debate and the usual sour grapes. But the casual visitor who goes along to the show might profitably miss all this. For on the simplest level of information and human spectacle - a kind of sophisticated version of look and learn - most visitors will almost certainly leave the Salgado exhibition with a wider knowledge of the world we live in.

Between 1986 and 1991, Salgado travelled to those countries where industry and agriculture were still reliant on physical effort, photographing workers before their way of life disappeared. The final exhibition has picture essays from 26 countries, including steel workers in France and Ukraine, shipbuilding in Poland, sulphur mining in Indonesia, women dam- builders in India, sugar-cane cutters in Cuba. Only one set was taken in this country - the building of the Channel Tunnel. In most of Britain, it was already too late for his project. The Industrial Age is over: nearly all the mines and mills and shipyards have closed; cars are made by robots. The manual labour force, in large part, is unemployed.

Though he's documenting the end of an era, Salgado goes for the heroic view. His is not a rounded examination of the workers' lot (where they live, what they eat, who their families are, what they do at night, who looks after them when they grow old). Instead, he elevates the worker to the status of a god; his photographs are compositionally arranged to emphasise the greatness and dignity of manual labour. And it is this quality in his pictures that has his critics squirming about 'kitsch'. The trouble is, for anybody with a half-memory of Bible studies, a passing acquaintance with religious painting or a working knowledge of epic cinema, these pictures can't help but resonate. Fishermen become disciples, poor women Madonnas, gold prospectors pre-Christian slaves. Looking at the most memorable, and most published set of photographs from this exhibition, the prospectors of the Serra Pelada goldfields in Brazil, it's hard to remember that they were taken in the 1980s, rather than belonging to a nightmare vision of the Old Testament.

Salgado has been attacked for ignoring the destitution, injury and disease which are also part of the workers' story. But his powerful style - a potent brew of latter-day Marxism and South American spiritualism stirred by philanthropic zeal - has found an enormous audience. When the 'Workers' exhibition opened in Madrid earlier this year, it attracted 2,000 people a day for six weeks. When it opened a few weeks ago in Bratislava, the locals stared at the Indian women labourers, though they were less interested in the steel workers of the Ukraine, whose lives were too similar to their own.

In the last two or three years, since his reputation moved outside the orbit of photography and into a more general kind of celebrity, Salgado has grown accustomed to criticism. 'Sometimes people ask me questions,' he explains. 'They say, 'Your pictures are too dramatic, too romantic.' I can only apologise. It is the way I take pictures. Probably it is my Brazilian way, to do it like this. I take pictures not only with my camera, but with my life. I cannot do it another way.'

In conversation, his lyrical sentences bend easily to abstract themes: art, love, death, evolution, inequality - we covered them all energetically in a couple of hours. It isn't just that English - his fifth language - reduces the gradations of his expression. He makes it seem normal to talk like this, like a character in a Marquez novel. It would be too much if it weren't grounded by a similar facility for discussing the demographics of the Third World.

Salgado trained as an economist before taking up photography, and though this isn't an indispensable foundation for a photo-journalist (and it's possible to make too much of it), it helps to explain his preference for identifying discrete economic groups and constructing a body of work around them. He planned the last job like a military campaign, and its purpose was unashamedly didactic. Like all 'concerned' photographers (he prefers the word 'militant') he thinks his pictures can bring about some good.

Plenty of other photographers have worked like this, drumming up financial support in advance for long-term projects: a commission from a rich magazine, government grants or awards from artistic fellowships and foundations. Walker Evans was supported in the Thirties by the American Farm Security Administration, the government agency that appointed writers and photographers to document the lives of farmers impoverished by the Depression. In the Forties and Fifties, Eugene Smith produced his great picture essays for Life, which have inspired photo-journalists ever since. (Salgado won the Eugene Smith award in 1982.) Smith was dedicated to showing 'the truth' in a photograph. In 1948 he wrote: 'Photographic journalism, because of the tremendous audience reached by publications using it, has more influence on public thinking and opinion than any other branch of photography. For these reasons, it is important that the photographer-journalist has . . . a strong sense of integrity, and the intelligence to understand and present his subject matter accordingly.'

Forty-five years later, not only has photo-journalism ceded its primary importance as a medium of information to television, but the public is also much more suspicious of photography's supposed inability to lie. What is remarkable about Salgado is that, in the middle of the Eighties, when demand for black and white photography was at an all-time low, he succeeded in making money from his pictures in the press, despite the fact that most magazines thought photo-journalism obsolete.

He put tremendous effort into financing 'Workers'. He extracted annual guarantees against the stories from magazines and newspapers; he secured the generous grant from Kodak. To the envy of others trying to do the same thing, he succeeded spectacularly in liberating himself to work virtually uninterrupted, just sending back occasional sets of pictures to contracted clients. 'He's just a brilliant salesman' I was told repeatedly, and I was to understand by this, I think, that it slightly tainted the quality of the pictures.

SALGADO became a photographer in 1973, when he was 29. He had been living in Paris with his wife, Lelia, an architecture student, since the mid-Sixties and was doing his post- graduate degree in economics when, in 1970, he came to London to work for the International Coffee Organisation. He had only recently begun to take pictures, with his wife's camera. But in the two years he spent with the ICO, he made several trips to Africa, and took the camera with him. When he came back to London, he found the pictures gave him much more pleasure than the economic reports he had to write.

'I began to have a different kind of contact with the world. It was possible to be inside the camera, to be intimately inside the life of the person I was photographing. I could do with photography what was impossible to do as an economist.'

Very quickly he gave up his career, abandoning his doctorate, and he and Lelia went back to Paris. He took on freelance jobs, joined the Sygma agency, then Gamma, and in 1979 became a member of Magnum. In March 1981 he was on assignment for the New York Times when a gunman attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan. This was his first world-famous picture, but the instant news photograph was not his preferred medium. His first book, The Other Americas, revealed his personal style - elegiac, overpoweringly beautiful pictures stamped with the triple obsessions that frequently inform Latin American photography and literature - love, death and the Church (though Salgado, as a lapsed Marxist, has little practical interest in religion).

He attached himself to various aid organisations. In 1984-5 he worked alongside Medecins Sans Frontieres covering the famine in the Sahel desert in Africa and producing a book and an exhibition that toured France and Spain. Some people cried in front of the pictures. Others worried that the starving mothers and children should look so beautiful. The profits from both went to MSF. But the turning point came in 1987, with the publication of a set of pictures that was to form the basis of the 'Workers' project.

The prospectors of the Serra Pelada goldfields in Brazil had been photographed before - even by some of Salgado's Magnum colleagues - and there was nothing, initially, to suggest its subsequent success. Magnum circulated the pictures round the magazines as usual. In England, Salgado had suggested that perhaps Granta might want it. Instead, it was published by the Sunday Times Magazine and would eventually sell to over 25 other magazines around the world. The photographs showed a crawling ant-hill of near-naked bodies slithering up and down makeshift ladders in a sea of mud. The scale of the picture seemed almost unbelievable, a scene from hell, or at least Cecil B de Mille.

Other stories followed. In 1990 he went to Cambodia to photograph rice production, and while staying in a village he saw men, women and children coming back from the fields with their legs and feet blown off by the Khmer Rouge's anti-personnel mines. A population of amputees was growing by the thousand. Salgado's story was sold around the world (an appeal that accompanied his pictures in the Independent Magazine raised pounds 70,000 alone). The money raised was matched by the United Nations and the European Community, and eventually pounds 250,000 went to build a completely new hospital.

He calls this the 'first level' of his work: practical do-gooding via photography. The 'Workers' project, he says, represents the second level, the creation of a universal social history. 'In the first level you take the photographs to motivate people to act immediately; in the second you tell a story. You make a portrait of a group.'

Nowadays he prefers museums to show his pictures. Hanging them in a commercial gallery only runs further risk of their being judged as individual pieces of art, instead of parts of a whole. 'Art critics have criticised me, but I am not an artist. I published these pictures in magazines, to make a debate. A museum is a fabulous place, the most democratic place for men and women to learn about their past. The people who come to see this show are coming to see a story. Our story. And when you see all this, somewhere inside you are very proud.'

Next March, the Salgado road show arrives at Harvard Business School, where students will look at the photographs and debate the transformation of labour. This is the kind of thing Salgado likes to be involved in. 'These pictures are at the centre of this change taking place in the workplace,' he says. 'We are living through an historic moment - the move from an industrial age to a technological age. But we must find a solution to those who can no longer find work. When we see a robot replacing a worker, we must remember all the workers whose lives have gone to make it. The robot is an evolution of the worker, its movements are the mechanised gestures of generations of workers. Billions of hours of work go to make this machine. We must employ the worker in some way, because the machine that replaced him is his machine, his experience. The

machine is a representation of a revolution. That's the point.'

SALGADO has already begun his next big project - on the migration of population around the world. His plan is to photograph refugees, people displaced by war, by famine, by unemployment and by racial barriers, and it will take him into some of the nastiest conflicts in the world - Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Kurdistan and Haiti. The written proposal is heavily researched, and mention of it invokes another sweep of Salgadian rhetoric: 'Twenty years ago, there were 20 million displaced people in the world; by 1989, there were 50 million; and from 1989 to now, we have jumped to 100 million displaced people. In Africa we have millions of people walking out of the fields to the towns. By the year 2000, eight of the 10 biggest cities in the world will be in the Third World, and all of them with populations of over 15 million. The problem is not population but distribution of resources. We must understand that to keep groups of people together, we must create proper infrastructures. We must give people employment, education, health care, so they don't want to walk out and destroy their family groups . . . '

Listening to this, I wondered whether Salgado was really satisfied that photography could change things. Just how effective was it?

That is a question he has already examined from both sides. When he was still working as an economist in the early Seventies, he developed a project to support a tea plantation in Rwanda, employing about 7,000 families. Twenty years later he returned to the same plantation, to photograph it. Which is more important, I asked him: practical help like this, on a small scale, or publishing pictures and putting on exhibitions around the world?

'You cannot do this calculation,' he replied. 'When I gave up working in London and went back to Paris, it wasn't a decision like - one thing is better than another. It was more that in your life, suddenly, one thing becomes the most important.

'But this is interesting: I was talking with Garcia Marquez, and he said to me: 'Sebastiao, I always write the same book. I only write different versions of the same thing.' And in the end I believe that in life we go about the same thing in different ways. I don't see much difference between what I do in photography now, and what I did as an economist - or what I did as a student, or what I did when I was a kid. You take pictures all your life, with your ideology, with your culture. Then one day you begin to press the button, and you take them with the camera. But they always come out of the past.'

'Workers' is at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank SE1, on 13 December-13 February, 1994.

(Photographs omitted)

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