Sebastião Salgado’s current exhibition is his first major London showing in nearly a decade, and is a timely reminder of why he is held to be the leading exponent of ‘concerned photography’. Such a label may lead one to expect to see sentimentalised images of starving refugees and haggard migrant children. However, Sebastião’s philosophy and artistic integrity guard against this: ‘I am not a judge of what is good or what’s bad. My pictures are only a cross section of what happens through this cycle of displacement and migration.’
Born in 1944 in Aimore, Brazil, Sebastião was initially trained as an economist at the university of Paris. He began his photographic career in the early 1970s during which time he worked for such major photographic agencies as Sigma, Gamma and between 1979 and 1994, Magnum, home of the greats of photo reportage.
Exodus, showing currently at the Barbican gallery, documents the overwhelming phenomenon of mass migration at the end of the 20th century, and more importantly provokes fundamental questions about what kind of world allows men, women and children to face such a desperate plight as the exiled Rwandans or displaced Albanians. At the entrance to the gallery one such question is emblazoned on the wall alongside the first group of pictures: ‘As we move towards the future are we leaving our humanity behind?’ With this in mind, the subsequent 350 large black and white photographs that highlight stories of migration between some of the 40 countries visited by Sebastião in the last decade, make for uncomfortable viewing. These are not pictures of suffering which can be consigned to history; less than 10 years have passed since a million Hutus were slaughtered in Rwanda and the agony of such catastrophe still haunts the eyes of those captured so movingly by Sebastião’s lens. In the absence of oil for loot one wonders where the ‘coalition of the willing’ were during those tragic months of 1994.
The second section of the exhibition is comprised of some 100 portraits of children under the age of fifteen who Sebastião Salgado encountered during his travels. Their faces show a mixture of sadness, hope and humour – none of these children, such as the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, chose to be born into immigration camps, to be holed up in barbed wire cages like animals. Yet there is still a glimmer of hope in their prematurely aged faces, empowered by Sebastião’s focus. In his words, ‘In truth we can only guess what they are feeling. Yet here we, at last, see them as they chose to be seen. In the universe of the photograph, they stand alone. And perhaps for the first time in their young lives, they are able to say, “I am”.’
The Exodus exhibition is being held in partnership with Amnesty International. Visitors are asked to purchase a special Amnesty International ticket, and £1 will be donated directly to Amnesty International.