The Power of Photography: Salgado’s Terra

by Mark Chmiel

Sebastião Salgado.  Terra: Struggle of the Landless.
Phaidon.  $55.00. 143 pages.

For Cami

Several years ago at a conference on liberation theology at Maryknoll, my wife, Mev Puleo, asked the noted Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino how she could respond to the growing misery of the Third World. A photojournalist, she was also pursuing a master’s degree in theology. Sobrino’s response: “We don’t just need liberation theologians. We need liberation photographers, liberation teachers, liberation accountants.” His words were a stimulus to my wife — there was plenty of vital work for a photographer to do.

This new book by Sebastião Salgado reminds me of Sobrino’s inclusive vision. I’d even say that Salgado is a “liberation photographer” in that he has made a preferential option for the poor — in the present case, the landless masses of Brazil.

Who is he? Sebastião Salgado is an engaged photographer, one who carries on the grand tradition of social documentary photography exemplified by people such as Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange. A Brazilian, Salgado was forced to leave his homeland in the late 1960s, a time of great violence under the military dictatorship. He now lives as an expatriate in Paris.

While in his 20s, Salgado left his career as an economist and took up photography. He has since been documenting the lives, sufferings and struggles of workers and refugees in the Third World. It is this world of oppression, hunger and violence that Salgado has captured with his camera. He brings back images that stir the heart and prick the conscience.

The present book, covering a 15-year period in Brazil, is divided into five sections: The People of the Land, The Workers of the Land, The Force of Life, Migrations to the City, and The Struggle for the Land. The photos express the heartbreak of life for Brazil’s poor.

Well over four million Brazilians are without land, while much arable land lies unattended or is wasted in comparatively unprofitable cattle-ranching. On the great estates, or latifundios, hired gunmen are used to deter the landless peasants from occupying plots of land in an effort to survive. Also, with deforestation proceeding apace, droughts are more frequent, hunger increases and people flee the rural areas for employment in big cities, especially São Paulo, which is one of the most immense metropolises in the world.

Salgado’s black-and-white photographs reveal the arduous lives and struggles of Brazil’s poor workers: the sugar cane laborers, the gold miners, the cattle hands and the cotton-plantation workers. He presents numerous portraits of children whose lives have already been marked by dispossession and death. In one market, the viewer sees for sale not only fruits and vegetables but coffins hanging on the wall. In fact, the poor are too poverty-stricken even to afford them. They borrow coffins from a church and use them for wakes and transporting the deceased to the burial ground; after the body is buried, the coffins are reused. The poignant rituals of grieving and honoring the dead are also featured in Salgado’s photographs of the 19 people who were gunned down by military police during a demonstration in April 1996.

But in many of these photographs, we receive a sense of the Brazilians’ heroic tenacity: wedding celebrations in the midst of desolate land, a base community praying before an occupation attempt, and the results of victorious land occupations that enable the people to feed their families. Indeed, this book was published this past April to coincide with the International Day of Struggle for the Land. Terra gives dramatic testimony to the amazing resourcefulness and courage of poor people who have become organized into an impressive grassroots movement for social change.

In the back of the book, Salgado provides captions with historical background and political analysis to help the viewer understand the stakes of the struggle. The Portuguese writer José Saramago also contributes a sardonic and moving preface in which he writes of God’s mistakes and humanity’s — especially the latter’s creation of private property.

The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once offered counsel that calls to mind Salgado’s project: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contacts and visits, images and sound. By such means awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

Salgado’s personal contact with the suffering world of the landless is creatively and constructively presented in this book. Terra can serve to awaken those of us in middle-class America to a world in which the simple things we so easily take for granted are the source of life-and-death agitation. From his own immersion in the misery and struggle for change in Brazil. Salgado confronts us with a painful, though potentially liberating, truth: the homeless and unemployed of the United States and the landless of Brazil are stirring reminders that the capitalist economic system fails, again and again.

Thus there’s plenty of suffering to respond to, and there’s a lot of work to be done by liberation photographers, accountants, farmers, teachers, painters, spiritual directors, therapists, journalists and plumbers.

–first appeared in NCR, spring 1997

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