LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS: Sebastião Salgado.
5. Lessons from the most influential Social Documentary Photographer and Photojournalist.
“Photography is much more than just taking pictures – it is a way of life. What you feel, what you want to express, is your ideology and your ethics. It’s a language that allows you to travel over the wave of history.” - Sebastião Salgado.
Over the course of a 45-year career and 120 countries, Salgado work on long term projects resulting on five masterpieces: Other America, Sahel, Workers, Migrations and Genesis. His work focused around issues such as migration, work and basically, what is man and the relationship with the earth.
“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures” - Sebastião Salgado.
Originally from Brazil, an underdeveloped huge country with a lot of natural resources and also with huge social problems, and lot of injustice. To understand better the life and success of Salgado comes handy to see the Documentary “The Salt of the Earth”.
It was free to watch on youtube until recently. Now it can be purchase in Amazon for £5.99.
01. Another Crossroad.
He was 27 years old when I first looked through the viewfinder of a camera and took a picture.
Salgado studied Economy and did his Phd in France. He started off working as economist for a coffee Organisation that brought him to travel to Africa.
Salgado tells the story that when his wife Lélia was studying architecture in Paris, and it was necessary for her to buy a camera to take pictures of architecture. He looked inside a camera for the first time and his life completely changed. It became his camera, started to use it and photography made a total invasion in his life.
“My pictures gave me 10 times more pleasure than the reports I was working on. To be a photographer was, for me, an incredible way to express myself, an incredible way to the see the world from another point.” - Sebastião Salgado.
In 1973 he gave up his career as an economist, photography made a total transformation of his life. After working for the Sygma and Gamma photo agencies, in 1979 he joined Magnum, the prestigious agency.
He cemented his reputation as a photojournalist, however, when he captured the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in March 1981.
Leaving Magnum in 1994, Salgado set up the photo agency, Amazones Images, in partnership with Lélia to promote his photography.
On the side, he devoted himself to more elaborate and personal documentary projects. He traveled through Latin America for seven years (1977-1984), Salgado went on foot to remote villages. He captured the images for the book and the exhibition Other Americas (1986), a study of the different cultures of the rural population and the cultural resistance of the Indians and their descendants. He travel through Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador and Guatemala.
It was a reassurance to know that Salgado, like Ansel Adams, had changed life paths too. I felt bad for a long time because I did not want to continue with the profession I had studied. I have learned that life is not a straight way anyways, but that it allows infinite paths. It's never too late to learn something different. It gave me the courage to follow this path fearless and with full confidence in myself. I gave myself permission to try anything, make mistakes and learn from them without judging myself.
02. Long Term.
Salgado put astonishing amounts of time into his projects. In a world where we so often seek quick results, his projects spanned years. His project ‘The Other Americas’ involved fieldwork across Latin America from 1977-1986. ‘Workers’, his pictorial exploration of manual work involved 23 countries between the years 1986-1992. ‘Genesis’, his landscape project, took from 2004 until 2013. This speaks of a contribution on a monumental scale. Most of the time valuable Work is not quick, and it may not payback immediately.
“I very much like to work on long-term projects. There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures” - Sebastião Salgado.
Sebastião Salgado talked about the importance of working on long-term projects, as they allow you to get to better understand your subjects, a place, and go more in-depth.
He is also interested in making stories and narratives, not just single images.
“I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story. If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don’t work for an individual picture”- Sebastião Salgado.
Salgado has change a lot my concept of photography projects, from single pretty imagines to group of pictures to tell a story. Also it switch the way I travel. His photo book “Other Americas” really touched me; It made me understand the importance of investing time to know a place and get close to locals. It takes time to build the confidence in where people can be their selfs in front of you. You cant go to a community and straight away attack with you camera. People like to be asked permission and to know who you are, what are you doing. When I start to travel I made the mistake to try to see and do as much as possible, there was no time to connect with nothings, I was moving from place to place every 3 days. Now I regret of not involving myself more into a community and I am so willing to do In my future travels.
What made Salgado reach such a success was his wife. Lelia, was his co-adventurer in the Work. Together the couple founded Amazonas Images to earn a living from the images through publication and exhibition. Although it is Sebastiao’s name on the photographs, it was evident in the film just how much of a collaborative effort this involved.
“I have a partner that I work with: my wife. The most important thing in all my life was the day that I met my wife. I met her in 1964 and every story that I photographed, we considered, we discussed together. We were motivated by the same ethical and political reasons to do these stories.” - Sebastião Salgado.
“The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” - Sebastião Salgado.
He has also collaborated generously with international humanitarian organisations throughout his career. These include UNICEF, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International.
Salgado says he never did a photography project where he just showed up in a village or a refugee camp, to knock the door and say: Can I come in?. He always search for an institution that is working with these people, to have their introduction. He never goes to shoot on the first day, but to be presented by someone, be introduce to the community and spend time.
This approach is something I still need to learn. I had the wrong believe that this was a solo job. Once understood the importance of collaboration, I got left to deal with the doubt and fear of selling myself. It is the fear of failing before even starting.
Was very helpful to watch a great documentary made by Banksy- “Exit Through The Gift Shop”. It is about Thierry Guetta, better known as the famous Mr. Brainwash. With him as a sample all my self doubts are going away.
04. Time to Research-Study.
The success or failure of a photo shoot is affected by the work you do before you leave your home. To prepare a strong and meaningful concept is not easy. Understand what you want to shoot. Understand the impact your work could have. Study what makes the world move.
Don’t just be a guy with a camera, because everybody has a phone to take pretty pictures.
“The time spent photographing in the field is only one per cent of the time. The time I take to consider – to prepare, to design, to have the concept – is a full lifetime. That’s the point with photography.” - Sebastião Salgado.
Salgado has made his reputation with in-depth complex projects delving into social issues such as inequality, development, urbanisation, labor, migration, and globalisation.
Behind the lens Salgado spent uncountable hours doing research about these topic. His background as a economist is a great tool to see more clearly the bigger picture. Salgado recommends to the young artist to study other topics a part from photography, to have a wider vision of the world.
“If you’re young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy, geopolitics. Study so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph.” - Sebastião Salgado.
School is one thing, Education is another. The two don’t always go together.
Whether you studied in school or not, it’s always your job to get yourself an education. In our world with Internet, Ted talks, Audiobooks and all the free courses Online. There is no excuse for any of us, the information is at our fingertips.
Be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up, Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else, Google everything, always be reading. This is the cure for the Era of productiveness and disinformation.
Like Iggy Pop once said: "Curious is a good thing to be, it seems to pay some unexpected dividends".
In a practical way. No matter what the topic is, its helpful to know where you are getting into and prepare for all possibilities. You certainly don’t want to show up and find out that you can't work.
I often found myself in extreme situations. Off Season, Hiking with the rain, shooting with the wind or scouting for locations with extreme heat. All this could have been thought before hand.
Google Everything beforehand! As a norm. This is the advise I would give to myself in the past.
05. Put yourself into it. Do the work you want to see. Photograph what interests you.
More so than any other contemporary photographer, Salgado has come to typify the genre of fine art photojournalism. Renowned for his tonality, the chiaroscuro effect of his dramatic black and white images. This success undoubtedly comes from his political insight and distinctive aesthetic that show the world both beautiful and cruel. It is this combination of political and aesthetic that make it impossible not to respond to Salgado’s photography without a thought or a comment.
Ultimately what Sebastião Salgado is trying to do as a photographer isn’t photos that people like. Rather, He wants to provoke social change. He wants people to start having discussions about Humanity, Nature and the relationship between.
“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph”
“The ideology or “style” you have in photography should be less about the camera you shoot with, the subject, or whether your shots are in black and white. Your photography should be how you see the world, what is important to you, and what you are trying to say about through your images”. - Sebastião Salgado.
In a interview with Audrey Singer, Salgado was very clear about his intentions.
A.S: How do you think about your audience? First when you are conceiving of the project and then when you are shooting?
S.S: I don’t think about them. Sometimes I am very surprised,
for example, when people come up to me and say that my pictures have make a big impression on them.
A.S: But in a bigger sense—you want to have an impact.
S.S: I want to change the mentality out there. I want people to be concerned about their planet. I want people to be concerned about the distribution of wealth on this planet and that we all can live together. These are my concerns. I’m not concerned about whether a person likes or dislikes my pictures.
There were those who said (like Susan Sontag) that Salgado was making aesthetics of misery... Meu cu! (Brazilian expression that can be translated as "My ass!"). I photograph my world, I am a Third World person. Said Salgado in a interview for the Spanish Newspaper "El Pais"
But probably this is the harder part to learn, that regardless people like or dislike your photos, keep putting yourself into your work. Photograph the things that interests you. Do the projects that show your beliefs, giving the best of you.
Be yourself, Everybody else is taken.