Can beautiful images of starving people feed the soul? That, after all, is what great art does. It's also one of the things that make the art of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado so disturbing. Salgado, who specializes in photographing the world's poorest people, works in black and white and has a unique baroque style controversial for mixing beauty and horror.
Though, for many, the thought of wealthy museumgoers in the First World "enlarging" themselves by feasting on images of the world's poor probably seems a sort of spiritual cannibalism, this is clearly not Salgado's intent. His goal is to make the Haves of the world aware of the plight of the Have Nots -- not just their plight but their essential humanity and their dignity in the face of unimaginable suffering. If Salgado were less of an artist, the cognitive dissonance caused by his style -- often damned as "making poverty beautiful" -- would be less discomfiting. As it stands, Salgado is one of the most disturbing -- and most interesting -- photographers working in the world today.
The Berkeley Art Museum is a perfect venue for Salgado's new show Migrations: Humanity in Transition. The photographs in Migrations were taken over seven years in more than forty countries. Salgado's subject in all these places is people on the move, driven by war, famine, or poverty, from country to country, or from countryside to city. All of the photographs are captioned directly on the mat.
The first part of the exhibit, "Migrants and Refugees: The Survival Instinct," begins with images of Mexican and Central American migrants and the daunting border that separates them from the promised land. The images are too familiar, at least to Californian eyes: a blurred figure runs across the concrete no-man's-land that marks the border; a group of frightened migrants, caught during a nighttime crossing, huddle in the headlights of an INS jeep. Much more interesting are the photos from Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, including Salgado's famous Winslow Homer-esque vision of Vietnamese boat people leaving Vung Tau beach. The photo of a young Bosnian boy seen through a shattered windshield is particularly impressive. Also notable are his surreal photographs of the ruins of Kabul and the chilling pictures of Vietnamese refugee children at the Whitehood detention camp in Singapore.
Salgado has said he wants his viewers to feel respect, not compassion, towards the people in his pictures. This is particularly evident in his photographs of Africa. His portraits of starving refugees in the forests of Zaire are striking for their humanity and for the bonds of family life they depict, even under the most terrible circumstances. His vast refugee camp landscapes are biblical in both their scope and in their glorious sun ray-riven skies. Salgado's Catholic iconography is much in evidence here. Especially astonishing is the Rwandan Pietà of a woman cradling a dying relative, his head encircled by a giant halo created by the pattern of her dress.
The second tier of the exhibit is split between "Latin America: Rural Exodus, Urban Disorder" and a special portrait section called "The Children." Salgado's use of children as symbolic commentators on the world situation -- especially his use of astonishingly beautiful children -- strikes many critics as the worst sort of sentimentalism. With the large, achingly lovely portraits in this section, Salgado seems to be baiting these critics. Yet these photos are in no way a journalistic equivalent of a Keane painting. For all the queerness of their staged, portrait-studio style, they are strangely powerful. All are different, each deeply human, but all seem to ask the same question. That question is not sentimental or self-pitying, but political -- not "Why is this happening to me?" but "What are you going to do about this?" If Save the Children had a donation box in this room, they'd make a killing. There isn't any such box, however, and that's because Salgado, a former economist, hopes to inspire not charity, but a broader political and economic transformation. On the other hand, this museumgoer could not help but reflect that the proceeds from the sale of even one of these photographs would set the subject of the portrait up for life.
The most politically hopeful photos in the whole exhibit are those of the landless peasant movement in Brazil -- even if the actual photos themselves (determined-looking peasants seizing land with hoes upraised) seem like stills from an early-'30s Soviet propaganda film. More interesting from a purely artistic point of view is the beautifully balanced photograph of a group of black Brazilian farmworkers returning home from the fields.
The photographs in "Exodus to the Cities: Mexico City and São Paolo" and "Asia: The World's New Urban Face" explore the lives of migrants living in the world's growing cities. Salgado contrasts the migrants' agrarian roots -- exemplified by an iconographic photo of a Vietnamese woman practicing traditional agriculture and an Indian woman in Chiapas washing her child's hair in a stream -- with the horrors of life in the world's great megacities. Cities look good from far away, Salgado seems to suggest with his exquisite skyline of São Paolo at sunset, but up close they are concrete and iron prisons. This image of imprisonment is repeated in photo after photo -- most strikingly in a cityscape of a construction worker framed in rebar atop a skyscraper. In case viewers miss the point, Salgado also throws in a few photos of actual prisoners in jails.
Migrations is dense and emotionally difficult, but ultimately rewarding. One is overwhelmed by the end of the first floor, exhausted by the third. Part of the problem is the sheer number of photos, which are hung close together, often in double rows. The news photos carry the narrative of the exhibit, but make it difficult to concentrate on the dozen or so truly extraordinary photographs that are scattered throughout. This is a pity, because Salgado at his best is one of the world's greatest photographers and there are many photos in Migrations that are worth lingering over. It's just hard to do on your first visit. Happily, the Salgado exhibit will be here until March 24, which gives you plenty of time to go back for a second and even a third look. For those with the interest and the stamina, it's definitely worth the effort.
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