Sebastiao Salgado: Eye Contact

It’s something about the eyes.

In times of conflict, war, rebellion, or natural disaster, it is so often the civilian who suffers, and it is the children who suffer most for they had supposed themselves to have the longest future yet to come. It is not the terrible shock of seeing homes destroyed or parents or siblings killed.  It is not just the hunger that eats at the body or the tiredness in that same body; it is the loss of innocence that changes the eyes.

In men who have been too long in combat and whose acceptance of the credibility of events has been strained beyond tolerances, we have a name for it.  We call it “the 1,000 yard stare”.  It is an emptiness of soul and a starkness that shows itself in the way the very muscles pattern on the body.  Even grown men and women can come to the point where their being is broken and the body still lives but the mind has trouble passing beyond that moment when innocence was lost.

After the trauma, we can feed and exercise that body given luck and time, but the eyes will long keep the roundness of amazement that the world can do to us what it has done—most often by other human beings acting against an unsuspecting naivety of childhood and innocence. Home is gone; the stability of knowing where one belongs is gone; the special place in the universe has come unhinged and suddenly a being has become a refugee.  Someone once said that a single displaced person is a tragedy; a thousand people displaced are a statistic because most of us are incapable of imagining it.  Only by remembering people as individuals can we add up the sum of the injustice and the magnitude of the misery.

You will remember and be haunted by it once you have seen it for yourself, even if it is only the second-hand vision of a photograph.  But if you have not seen it for yourself then it is an abstract, a concept inadequately described in words, and it is only truly in the last 160 years that photography has enabled someone who has seen the products of atrocity, disaster, and mass exodus to be able to capture the moments and to share them with those who were not there.

Goya railed against such tragedy in his aquatints Los desastres de la Guerra (THE DISASTERS OF WAR). Lewis Wickes Hine approached it with a number of his photographs of immigrants during the early 1900s in the United States.  The photographers of the WPA touched on it with the great American exodus in the depression years of the 1930s. All of those latter events were documented in such a way we can see and empathize with the displaced victims of climate and social change.

A number of documentary photographers have set out to photograph the vast migrations of human beings who have been displaced by the tumultuous events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but one of the most successful and visually articulate photographers to do this is Sebastiao Salgado.  Brazilian born, he originally trained as an economist for the World Bank.  The job involved travels to Africa in 1970 where he began to photograph the displaced people who were adrift in the turmoil of the African Continent. By 1973 he had quit his job and traveled to Africa with his wife with the intent to document the famine there.

He is a humanist whose journalistic work, growing mostly out of his self-determined projects, somehow depicts the very uniqueness of a single individual even when they are shown in the assembly of hundreds of people grouped by the context of a disaster.  His projects of documenting the world’s dispossessed have filled ten books and produced numerous exhibitions in Europe and the US. Most notably was his attention to the global phenomenon of mass displacements of people that resulted in two internationally acclaimed books Migrations and The Children that were published in 2000.

He photographs entirely in black and white and somehow manages to draw out of his subjects a larger meaning of what is happening to them.  He stresses the dignity of all humanity, but at the same time, he manages to protest the violations of war, poverty, famine, and other injustices.

While his photographs capture and show us the results of war, famine, and other disasters, it is the photographs of children done one-by-one that most move me.  Some are emaciated, some recovered, but the eyes tell us that their innocence is lost.  That is something that we cannot give back to them; we can only hope to prevent that loss for some other individual.

There are currently some 30 million people in our world, mostly women and children, who have lost their permanent homes, their sense of identity, and that innocence.  Mr. Salgado has shown us a representative sample. Perhaps in the eyes of one child we have seen into the eyes of them all.

Mr. Salgado says of his work, "I hope that the person who visits my exhibitions, and the person who comes out, are not quite the same. I believe that the average person can help a lot, not by giving material goods but by participating, by being part of the discussion, by being concerned about what is going on in the world."