Images freeze the poor as powerful

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Images freeze the poor as powerful

Sebastiao Salgado once said his photographs would be a failure if they had simply triggered pity for his subjects.
Indeed, as a photographer who travels around the world to take images of developing countries, Salgado’s work concentrating on blue-collar workers, refugees and impoverished children possesses an ambience that often contradicts the depicted reality.
In an image of a group of boys from southern Sudan hiding in a secluded refugee camp in northern Kenya, a streak of light coming from the crack in the door is set as if it is sacred light from heaven. In a spectacular shot of workers climbing the ladders of a goldmine in Serra Pelada, Brazil, Salgado captures the scenery with a sense of heroism.
Ambiguities and ironies add depth to the meaning. The faces of the orphans in a hospital in a Rwandan refugee camp in Zaire walk a fine line between frightening and cheerful; the close-up shots of wrinkled faces and damaged body parts of laborers demand a sense of dignity and imply the importance of human labor.
An image of children playing with animal bones in Brazil poses a poignant image of death and how it sinks into the lives of average citizens in the country.
In the end, though, Salgado’s images come down to issues of hope.
In his photographs, a war victim who struggles on her crutches along the ruined streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, is transformed into a heroic survivor; a mother with her baby restlessly stares into a void at the Korem refugee camp in Ethiopia, similar in symmetry to portraits of Mary and Jesus.
Salgado produces horrifying images of displaced children and exploited workers. By doing so, his photos force his audience to be aware of the disturbing aspects of the global political environment.
One could keep in mind that Salgado’s choice of subjects for his photographs might have stemmed from his own experience as a cultural outsider.
Salgado was the son of a cattle rancher in Brazil. He studied economics at Sao Paulo University and worked as an economist. His second phase of life as a photographer came much later when he went on a trip to Africa after borrowing his wife’s camera in 1973.
After joining the Magnum Photo, he covered news events, including wars in Angola, the Israeli hostages in Entebbe and the cultural resistance movement in India and their descendants in Mexico and Brazil. He is now based in France.
“At times I would forget where I was. Cairo? Jakarta? Mexico City,” he writes in his photo book. “Everywhere there are those same islands of wealth amid the poverty, like the green areas of Manila that are private golf clubs instead of public parks.”
The exhibit at Seoul Gallery brings together a wide range of the photographer’s works in developing countries.
And almost the entire exhibit is devoted to depicting social minorities within those impoverished regions, divided into works that deal with migrants, physical laborers and ethnic minorities. What’s incredible about the works, though, is that each subject in those categories are depicted with dignity, almost to the point that the subjects look sacred.

by Park Soo-mee

“From Desperation to Hope: Essays,” the exhibition of Sebastiao Salgado, runs through Sept. 3 at Seoul Gallery. For more information call (02) 733-6331 or check out
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