Across the Borderline 

Sebastio Salgado's "Migrations" photo show sings with the pain of the dispossessed

Renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado documents a new phenomenon in world history: massive-scale migration. There have always been refugees, exiles, and other kinds of migrants, but never before have so many millions of people been crossing borders to escape poverty, drought, hunger, war, and political oppression.

Consider yourself warned -- this is not a cheerful show. But you won't see pictures like this anywhere else -- certainly not in the major media, anyway, which cover "events" like political uprisings and natural disasters, but not the everyday reality of Mexican immigrants or Vietnamese boat people.

Salgado spent six years traveling through more than 35 countries to take the photos for this exhibit and its accompanying book. Any other artist might have considered the project impossibly ambitious, but Salgado has worked on this kind of scale before. His last undertaking, a massive book and traveling exhibition called "Workers," took him to numerous countries to photograph manual labor.

"Salgado was trained as an economist," observes Ken Light, curator of photography for UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, which is cosponsoring the show. "So he has a very broad and deep understanding of the problems of migration and landless people. He feels that photography should be involved in the debate around the social issues of the world. He's also an amazing storyteller. There's a great sorrow and sadness in the people and their conditions. But there's also a sense of strength and humanity and pushing forward."

Each individual photograph is remarkably beautiful and intimate in its own way, despite the overpoweringly bleak outlook of the show as a whole. The pictures introduce us to hidden worlds that we'd otherwise never see, full of covert nighttime border crossers, glue-sniffing homeless kids, and young Amazon Indian girls, who present themselves to Salgado's camera with seeming unself-consciousness, proving again and again his amazing ability to establish a rapport with his subjects.

Light remarks that the people Salgado photographs are motivated to open up and trust him because they really do understand the power of the camera. "Few photographers ever enter these communities, except for when it's a crisis event like a famine or a revolution. When you go to those kinds of places, people are actually very receptive to photography."

Only one set of photos in the exhibit has anything like a happy ending: the series on Russian Jews coming to America, which concludes with a beautiful aerial view of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where many of them have settled and created a thriving community of expatriates. The only cheerful note in an otherwise deeply depressing show, it's an effective reminder that the much-maligned American Dream sometimes does come true -- and that we should all take a moment to consider ourselves lucky.

"Migrations: Photographs by Sebasti?o Salgado" continues through March 24 at the Berkeley Art Museum. 2625 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 510-642-0808. Salgado will present a free lecture, "Migrations: Humanity in Transition," on Monday, February 11, at 7:30 p.m. at UCB's Wheeler Auditorium. On Tuesday, February 12, at 7 p.m., also at Wheeler, Salgado will introduce The Spectre of Hope, a documentary film based on his photographs. Admission is $25; call 510-642-5249 to charge by phone.

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