For six years and with a little help from the mighty purse of Eastman Kodak, Sebastiao Salgado, the Brazilian-born photographer, went to meet the manual workers of the world. Not for him men and women sitting blank-faced behind computer screens or superstore checkouts, but those who still toil by hand and the sweat of their brow. His irrepressibly romantic photographs, representing workers from 26 countries, mostly in the Third World but including France, Poland and Russia, are on show from this week in the main foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, London.
His most famous photographs have become household images. 'Workers' has just been shown in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, where it drew audiences of 2,000 a day for six weeks. Here again at the Royal Festival Hall are magnificent prints of near-biblical scenes of gold miners slaving at Serra Pelada, Brazil, or - in his own words - 'evoking the monumentality of Baroque sculpture, images of oil-fire fighters extinguishing Kuwait's wells', after the Gulf war.
That the photographs are superb, there can be no doubt. Yet, Salgado finds himself under attack from critics who find his work overblown, sensational, romantic. He is in danger, too, of becoming the celebrity he says he hates the idea of being. 'People in England say to me that my photographs are too beautiful, that they make an aesthetic statement out of human misery. What do they mean? I think that the British, especially, have a problem in coming to terms with the Third World. They want it to look miserable, unhappy.
'But, if you have lived and worked in India, for example, you will know that for many workers misery is not material; for them, misery is to do with loneliness and rejection, with leading life isolated from the group, and not principally with hardship and poverty. Look how the women who dig the Rajasthan Canal and toil in the coal mines dress in saris, wear as much jewellery as they own and have fresh flowers plaited into their hair. If I celebrate that dignity and beauty, what is wrong in doing so?'
From experience of some of the industrial infernos Salgado shows, I can say that his photographs do not sensationalise. What he has is a specific and unBritish way of looking at the world. His pale-blue eyes see, as if through a lens darkly, what a highly articulate Brazilian brought up on a diet of economics (he trained as an economist), Marxism, a direct experience of being involved with refugees and the novels of Alejo Carpentier and Gabriel Garcia Marquez would surely see. Salgado's photographs are romantic, which is not to say they are wrong-headed. They are, too, the stuff of Joseph Conrad, Zola and Cecil B de Mille.
Salgado sees the last workers of the Industrial Revolution as warriors and heroes, doing battle with scythes and drills, but says that his pictures should not be seen in isolation - as they are at the Royal Festival Hall. 'I am first of all a journalist,' he says. 'These pictures of workers tell stories and in the pages of El Pais, for example, they have been accompanied by articles. Usually an article will be full of the history of working conditions and of economic circumstances relating to the photos and there will be a sequence of photos, maybe as many as 20 or more. My work is not art and I certainly don't think of myself as an artist: it is reportage.'
Any object - a photograph, stack of bricks or, in Marcel Duchamp's case, a urinal (or was it a 'fountain' as the artist suggested?) - is open to re-interpretation in the setting of an art gallery. Therein lies much expostulating, theorising and pseudery. 'In London,' says Salgado, 'we wanted to show slides of the pictures - sequences of them telling complete stories - against the exterior walls of the South Bank buildings. That turned out to be beyond our resources. There would have been something poignant about showing images of sulphur miners in Indonesia and men cutting up redundant ships on the shores of Bangladesh against a backdrop of your own human misery in London - homeless young people begging in the rain outside the Royal Festival Hall. The Third World does not have a monopoly on misery.'
The pictures are also records of rapidly changing lives. While it is possible to do so, industrialists and entrepreneurs, foreign or indigenous, will exploit cheap life and labour. Yet there is a dark beauty and, as Salgado observes, Baroque drama in the labour of Sicily's traditional tuna fishermen netting, slaughtering and dismembering their prey. There is genuine heroism in the labour of women who - under a 120F sun - have dug earth and laid pipes, mother and daughter for 40 years, to complete a canal that in the year 2000 will bring water and food to millions of acres of acrid soil in India.
Imagine Salgado being set to work photographing the world's Post-Industrial workers - the single-parent mums on child benefit who sit bored out of their skulls checking baked beans and biscuits through electronic treadmills or social security clerks gazing myopically, limbs racked with RSI, behind winking screens in vast computerised white-collar factories. The images would inevitably be more Minimalist than Baroque and hellish without a peck of romance.
'Workers, an archaeology of the industrial age' is on level 2 of the Royal Festival Hall from now until 13 February, 10am to 10.30pm.
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