Cultura visual en América Latina
VOLUMEN 9 - Nº 1

America Latina

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Sebastião Salgado's Latin America


Universidad Autónoma de Puebla


Perhaps the best-known documentary photographer in the world, Sebastião Salgado is photojournalism's current superstar. Born in Brazil, he was educated as an economist and worked for that country's Ministry of Finance. In 1970 he became interested in photography while exiled in Paris and traveling on numerous occasions to Africa for the International Coffee Organization. He started working as a photojournalist in 1973 and eventually entered Magnum, the most prestigious photographic agency. Aside from the ubiquitous appearance of his images in magazines and newspapers, he has published books of significant distribution, mounted sumptuous and important exhibitions, and received prizes commensurate with his production.1

Salgado has photographed famines in Africa, migrants in Europe, burning oil wells in Kuwait, and workers all over the world. But he would argue that he has always done so through Latin American eyes: "I believe that there is a Latin American way of seeing the world. It's something you can't teach, it's part of you."2 He began making images of Latin America during 1977, and his first book on the area, Other Americas, appeared in English, French, and Spanish in 1986.3 After this initial project about his native land, he focused on hunger in the Sahel region of Africa, stimulated by his 1983 study of starvation in Brazil. During the next six years he dedicated himself to photographing work around the world, an undertaking which resulted in a huge exhibit and a large book, both entitled Workers. He recently published his second book on Latin America, Terra: Struggle of the landless, which reflects his involvement with the Sem Terra movement, the revolt of Brazil's dispossessed peasants.4

Salgado's imagery has provided much grist for the mills of intellectuals and critics, but they have rarely focused on his representations of Latin America.5 Reflecting on how Salgado has depicted his homeland offers a unique opportunity to examine the ways in which a first-class image maker of and from this area chooses to picture his paisanos. Here, I will highlight his characterization of Latin Americans by contrasting their portrayal in Other Americas and Terra, for I believe that a major shift of tone and emphasis occurs between one book and the other. I will also compare his forms of imaging his native land with that of selected Mexican photographers such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Nacho López, and contemporary photojournalists. Overlapping these divergent visions will enable us to silhouette different ways in which this area has been, and can be, represented.

The overwhelming impression left by Salgado's photographs in Other Americas is that all is sadness, misery, and death.6 Hand-in-hand with this focus on the tragic is a dominant tone of enigma. All is enveloped in an incomprehensible and inexplicable mystery which makes enigmatic the hunger, poverty, misery, and death which appear in this book. Evidently, these social cancers are not the result of the area's tremendous class differences, because there are no photographs of these injustices. Neither are they the product of living in overpopulated and dirty megacities which lack minimal services, for these ever-expanding slums do not appear either. The urban workers and their families that live and labor in the metropoli -- and which today constitute the majority of the population -- held no interest for Salgado's Other Americas. Rather, by aiming his camera at rural cultures, he asserted that these problems are simply part of the landscape. What is the meaning of this focus?

The most immediate and important connotation is that these problems are natural to Latin Americans, enrooted in their most traditional forms of being. Now, Salgado may truly have thought, when he was producing Other Americas, that misery in this region is the product of nature rather than historical forces such as dependent capitalism, imperialism, and neo-liberalism. However, I am tempted to believe that Salgado fell into a trap common among Latin Americans who feel they must represent their homeland in the picturesque/grotesque terms that is often the accepted discourse in the developed countries for talking about the Third World; a tendency, for example, which is evident in the work of contemporary Mexican photographers such as Graciela Iturbide and Flor Garduño. In Other Americas, Salgado gave his First World consumers what they expect and want, just as did the first really successful vendors of this vision: the film director, Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, in their exotic movies about little Indians in white pajamas, Mexican cowboys (charros) with wide sombreros, and campesinas wrapped in rebozos, which played to foreign film audiences some forty years ago.

However, Salgado did take it a step further in Other Americas by linking alienation to traditional life. Sadness, misery, death and enigma are omnipresent in the content of his images, but estrangement is conveyed essentially through formal structures: beams and shadows separate individuals from one another, windows and doors divide people rather than communicate them, gazes cross but do not meet.7 From whence such alienation? We commonly associate it with industrialization and urbanization, with the mechanization of life, but Salgado largely ignored modern Latin America in this book, focusing instead on traditional cultures. In this way, he could sell to the developed world the estrangement it knows so well, but with the interesting touch of dressing it in exotic clothing and sets. The Europeans and "Americans" who buy his published imagery would have little interest in photographs of Latin America's industrial proletariat, they know them only too well in their own societies. But alienation in picturesque situations is evidently a horse of a decidedly different color.

A Bolivian father is hugged by his daughters: Why does he look so surly and resentful as he returns the camera's gaze out of the corner of his eye?8 People are gathered for a wedding feast in Brazil: Why are they so overwhelmingly serious?9 An Ecuadorian couple hold a furry white puppy and a tiny bird in their arms, the beclouded mountains behind form a backdrop: What makes them appear so anguished, so distressed, so tired?10 I cannot help but wonder if his creation of "Other" Americas was not, in some sense, an attempt to apply the existential aesthetic of Robert Frank's The Americans to Latin America.11 Frank's portrayal of the United States as a harsh, sad and alienated culture was one not seen before its 1959 publication in New York, and he is considered to have virtually redefined US photography in this famous work, which has been reprinted many times. It would not be unusual that Salgado found inspiration there for constructing the visage of Other Americas.

Comparing the representation of particular themes in Other Americas with their treatment by Mexican photographers will enable us to distinguish certain differences in emphasis. For example, Salgado is obsessed (as we might expect) with the representation of death: it is sometimes grotesque – a Brazilian man straddles a grave in which a woman's body lies without coffin;12 other times it is pure anguish – Mexican women weep at a funeral;13 often it is enigmatic -- a Peruvian Indian makes an incomprehensible gesture in a desert cemetery;14 and at times it evidences estrangement – Brazilians are posed so that they are standing on separate tombs, thus emphasizing their separation from one another.15 Death has been an important subject for Mexican artists, a reflection of its ubiquity and the rich cultural expressions that have arisen around it, as in José Guadalupe Posada's lithographs. Frida Hartz, for one, captured death's inconsolability in her photo of Mexican widows of campesinos who were killed for insisting on their rights.16 But, what is perhaps moslacking in Salgado is the recognition that death, above all in a context where so many die for economic reasons, is part of life; if it is not necessarily to be celebrated, you can at least laugh in its face, as did Nacho López in his image of a man, a smile barely visible, who is being measured in front of a coffin shop.17 You can also make the sort of ironic commentary for which Manuel Alvarez Bravo is justifiably famous: a young girl, hands clasped to her mouth, stands looking at a sign announcing, "CAJAS MORTUORIAS," in which the black hand of a woman (la negra, death) extends an oversized and elongated finger which points, drolly, to the final destination of all living creatures.18

The insistence displayed in Other Americas to document the futility of solace in Latin America is manifest in an image of All Saints' Day (Día de los Muertos). Taken in a Mexican graveyard, the photo's opaque, misty tone creates a veiled and inscrutable image in which a dog dominates the foreground, while the people are lost in the fog behind.19 There is, of course, nothing mysterious about the presence of a dog in a cemetery on All Saints' Day; this is the time when the families gather to clean the graves and reunite with their departed loved ones. That it is exactly the opposite of what Salgado wished to represent in this image can be seen clearly in comparing it to the many photos by Alvarez Bravo, Nacho López or the Hermanos Mayo of families joined together in graveyards. Moreover, the lively spirit of this celebration, the gay challenge in death's face is well represented in pictures such as Alvarez Bravo's smiling girl who holds a sugar skull in her hands, the word AMOR written across the forehead.20

The Other Americas's fixation on demise and despondency can be seen in the Brazilian children who lay on a floor, playing with animal bones.21 Here, while alluding to death, Salgado also emphasizes the evident poverty in the absence of "real" toys. The photo's psychological tone is set by the serious expressions on the children's faces and their prostration on the floor. In capturing this scene from above, Salgado makes his message clear: What reaction is possible in the face of such conditions except depression and resignation? Nacho López's photo of poor children playing with a rat provides one answer.22 There we see children trapped in one of Mexico City's poorest barrios, also without toys and reduced to finding them how and when they can; in this case, it was a rat. López denounces this situation, but he does not remain stuck in how dispiriting it is. The image exposes the precarious sanitary conditions in the slum and demonstrates the children's poverty, their lack of the most elemental. But it also shows the creativity that flowers in the midst of want. Nacho López emphasizes the subjectivity of the children through recourse to two formal elements: on the one hand, the children interact with the photographer and look at the camera; on the other, the low angle chosen by López gives them power in the frame instead of looking down on them from a high angle.

The death of animals in Other Americas is charged with inexplicable affliction. A Mexican boy stands next to a goat which has been killed, skinned and hung to a tree.23 A rope sustains the goat's head – permitting the dead animal to return the camera's gaze -- and holds one hoof up, as if mysteriously signaling. Next to this morbid spectacle, the boy also stares fixedly, lips pursed, at the camera which looks down from above at the scene. Compare this image to Nacho López's chicken vendor, who totes a veritable mountain of dead fowl on his head, his face almost covered by their defeathered necks.24 In spite of the photo's content, it is neither grotesque nor enigmatic; the pollero is simply transporting his merchandise in order to be able to sell it. In this image we see the touch of ironic humor which infused López's documenting of the naturally surreal juxtapositions so common to Mexico.

Even the Latin American landscape is anguished in Other Americas. Cactus, for instance, is a plant which has often served as a vehicle for photographers' reflections on Mexico and mexicanidad. In Salgado's image, the maguey isolates the children who appear within the sharp points that threaten and imprison them, a symbol for the quotidian pain of living in this part of the world.25 This is not the connotation which Edward Weston gave to it in images which portray the maguey as a majestic and exuberant form.26 Neither is it among the meanings which Alvarez Bravo has ascribed to cacti in his various explorations of this national symbol, perhaps most humorously when he photographed a maguey to which a television antenna has been tied. Above all, Salgado's image lacks the critical complexity of Héctor García's photo, "Crown of thorns."27 In García's image, a worker on a henequen plantation struggles with the heavy load of sisal he supports with a head band; by capturing the jornalero at the moment in which the living plants in the background form a crown, García combines the political and the religious to create a powerful metaphor.

Do politics or religion offer an answer in Other Americas? The book neglects politics, as it does the existence of social classes. In relation to the question of religion, it has been commented that, "Many of Salgado's pictures seem to be placed in the long Christian tradition of the iconography of suffering."28 Nonetheless, it is a suffering in which there is no salvation, because religion is only another burden for the Mexicans, who carry beams like crosses on their backs.29 In Other Americas, either religion provides no solution -- something evident in the shrugged shoulders and quizzical expression of the Mexican campesino who stands in front of a fog-shrouded church – or it offers simply another opportunity to portray the enigmatic, as in the image of Ecuadorians who cover their faces with a religious banner.30 Other Americas's imagery contains neither the apparent religious faith of Nacho López's devout poor, kneeling before the Virgen of Guadalupe, nor the curious mix of religion and modernity seen in Guillermo Castrejón's photo of a nun who sustains a tiny television set on her head, on which appears the pope during a visit to Mexico.31 Obviously, in none of Other Americas's images is religion linked to progressive projects, such as Liberation Theology, or revolution, as was the case in El Salvador.

Given the fact that Salgado appears to be genuinely concerned with the plight of the powerless, perhaps most of all in his native land, we might ask: Where does Other Americas fail? How is it that such good intentions have been led so far astray? I alluded above to the influence that the grotesque/picturesque tradition of representing Latin America must have exercised over Salgado, but the problem may lie as well in his adherence to the fine arts tradition of displaying imagery with minimal explanations so it can stand on its own. While this is useful in allowing a painting to be judged according to its formal qualities, it could well be that it flies in the face of the fact that a photograph is naturally, perhaps essentially, particular; that is, a photograph is necessarily always taken of a precise individual or individuals in a specific context during very particular fractions of seconds. In Other Americas, Salgado was more interested in constructing universal and eternal symbols than in capturing the particularity of the photographed.

Published in a way that leaves a sense of historical vacuum, the images in Other Americas lose their specificity of referent. We might say that they are symbols rather than documents (or metaphors). One way of talking about different kinds of photojournalism is in terms of the continuum between the poles of information and expression. Traditional photojournalism is more concerned with information, its images are documents. A document is limited to presenting the particase, lacking the expressivity to transform it into something more transcendent. Fine art photojournalism, such as Salgado's, leans more toward the expressive pole, its images are often symbols. A symbol does not adequately present the particular, because it lacks the information with which it could be constructed. In general, fine art photojournalists make photos that tell us more about the photographers than the photographed, while traditional photojournalists make images that tell us more about what they are photographing than about them.

Perhaps the best photojournalism fuses information and expression, document and symbol, in such a way as to create a metaphor: an image that retains the particularity of its referent but, at the same time, stands for a broader truth which transcends that immediate context. The best example in Salgado's work is his reportage on the garimpeiros, the gold miners of Serra Pelado, Brazil, which he began shortly after the publication of Other Americas and form part of Workers.32 In penetrating and powerful photos, he captured the insanity unleashed by the frantic search for instant wealth in inhuman living conditions: faces full of dementia and delirium, running battles between the deranged miners and the soldiers sent to police them, landscapes where ant-like men under cumbersome burdens trod on the feet of those in front of them. This reportage could well serve as a metonym for the infinite aberrations of a world with so little hope. It represents a significant advance over Other Americas, for here estrangement is not mysterious; rather, it derives directly from the evident conditions in which these poor devils live and work. That is not the case with Other Americas, whose images contain little information because the great majority were taken in a way so as to eliminate the social, political or economic context that could have been documented.

The garimpeiro images are capable of generating metaphors with little text due to their visual power and the sharply delimited situation, which requires little explanation. However, in general, particularity and the capacity to construct a narrative are the result of written descriptions. The absence of text in Other Americas means that the connotation of its images derives from the relationship created between them. The overwhelming sense of misery, mystery and despair is a result of the fact that we are given no interpretative framework for making sense of this accumulated meaning. The absence of a clearly articulated historical context leaves the reader floating in a curiously timeless, and somehow eternal, vacuum. There is no movement in the narrative, since all is given and no change is possible.

In Terra, the extensive captions at the end of the book contextualize the "Tristes Tropiques" imagery by linking it to concrete historical forces and, most importantly, by developing a narrative which documents not only oppression but its dialectical response: collective struggle. Terra's story essentially falls into two parts. The first half of the book is composed of photographs from the 1980s which depict the people, their land, work and privations. The images emphasize how "dignity and poverty are inseparable companions of the rural population," and there is little here of the despairing and mysterious misery in which Other Americas enveloped Latin Americans. Indeed, there are some pictures of knarled hands, deeply-lined faces and people laboring in fields that could have been made by one of the FSA photographers.33 They provide a backdrop to the later photos from 1996 of migration and land take-overs which appear in the second half of Terra, a narrative structure which provides a historical sense to Latin America's problems and prospects.

In photographing the migration to the cities and its concomitant degradation and dehumanization, Salgado himself migrates into an area he previously ignored. It should be noted that he does so successfully, for his work compares favorably with that of many of the better Latin American photojournalists for whom urban crisis has been a focus. The flight to the cities has been the typical reaction to the land monopolization by the latifundios and plantations which control Brazilian rural life. Salgado´s imagery documents the harsh reality and inhuman living conditions which await the migrants: homeless boys live in cardboard boxes, clutching to their meagre sustenance of bread; recent arrivals sleep next to roaring expressways or in frightfully overcrowded nocturnal shelters; beneath webs of electric lines strung from rickety home-made poles, children ride their bikes at twilight along dirt roads next to garbage piles; in an image reminiscent of Jacob Riis, people live underneath densely traveled highways on boards placed between the supporting pillars; prisons and prison-like bus stations are virtually indistinguishable.34

These poignant testimonies to the failure of urban migration for both the emigrants and the larger society are underlined by the final image of the section, "Migrations to the cities," in which a conglomeration of abandoned toddlers and the cityscape behind them serve as mutually reflecting metaphors of the future. Salgado makes patent his commitment to the coming generations in the portraits of children which provide a bridge to Terra's final chapter on the Sem Terra movement. These portraits are exquisite images of beautiful children whose dirty faces and ragged clothes leave a lasting impression. Salgado has been criticized for estheticizing misery, but, as Julian Stallabrass remarked:

What does it mean to make of the suffering of these people a form of art? In response to this question, the first thing to ask is what the alternatives would be. It is hardly conceivable that they could be depicted with the distanced, anaesthetic mode of much contemporary photography, suited to portraying suburban ennui....In their strong formal design, Salgado's pictures revive photographic modernism with its emphasis on geometry and visual contrast. Beauty is pressed into the service of an old-fashioned humanism...35

These portraits could also be accused of pandering to the advertising conventions that so dominate our ways of seeing. However, more important in this moment than teaching people how to see differently is the issue of what is to be the future of Brazil's children; they pose that question articulately with their beseeching eyes.

The last section of Terra focuses on "The Struggle for the Land." Here, the sad-eyed elders of Other Americas -- mysterious symbols of demise -- have been replaced by images of repression, struggle and the creation of a new life in communal schools and shiny settlement homes. Bloody bullet-ridden bodies, coffins piled in trucks, and the pain of murdered peasants' mothers are linked directly to military police in the pay of the landowners. Meanwhile, farmers raise their scythes in triumph, as Salgado documents the land takeovers of the Sem Terra Movement which have increasingly come to replace migration as a answer to landlessness.

Among the images from the 1980s which Salgado employs in Terra to provide the background are several which were originally published in Other Americas. This strategy opens up the issue of contextualization in the study of photography, for in Terra they often acquire meanings at odds with their former significance. Perhaps the most immediate effect of their recontextualization is the divestment of enigma; we now understand why these people look so sad: they have no land on which to produce food and no future for themselves and their children other than misery, illness and death. Their poverty is such that the church provides temporary coffins for wakes and transporting the dead to the cemetery, where they are buried without the casket to free it for further use. Information such as this about the temporary coffins suddenly clarifies images which were formerly inscrutable: the photograph of a man straddling the grave of a coffinless woman ceases to grotesque and converts itself into an articulate social critique.36

Salgado also effects the reworking of imagery through publishing different versions of some scenes from Other Americas. He explicitly signals the "re-writing" he intends to carry out by opening Terra with the photo of children lying on the floor beside their "toys" of animal bones, then later including another of these same children in which their dynamic attitudes attest to their creativity.37 The scene in Other Americas of people standing on separate tombs, evidently posed by him as a macabre symbol of their alienation, is also rescripted in Terra, where it has been replaced by two photos: one taken moments afterwards, in which these people are engaged in burying a child, the other an image of the funeral procession on the preceding page.38

In general, photographic analysis has concentrated on the immanent structure of images, the relations within the frame. However, photographs are by nature ambiguous and polysemic texts, their narrative capacity is weak, and their meaning is often determined by the immediate context created for their publication: the synthesis of text, titles, and – in extended photoessays such as Other Americas and Terra -- the accumulated significance of the images themselves. In Other Americas, the absence of text and the minimal titles (country, year) created a situation in which the meaning of the images was determined entirely by their cumulative effect. Because much of its imagery was of people with serious, even distressed, expressions, who were often in the presence of some form of death -- as well as divided from one another by formal structures –, mystery, anguish and estrangement were the sensations that came to the fore. In Terra, Salgado has redressed this problem by providing a historical context for understanding the source of these maladies, and creating a narrative which moves from past oppression to present struggle.

Other Americas represented a first step in Salgado's attempt to rediscover his native land after having been an exile. Like so many Latin Americans, he had to leave his homeland in order to discover it; he began this rediscovery by accommodating his powerful imagery to the picturesque and grotesque paradigm that seemed to be the accepted way of talking about his culture in the developed world. In Other Americas, Salgado gave his First World audience what they expected and desired. With Terra, he is trying to help Brazilians get what they need.



  1. For a listing of Salgado's awards, see Amanda Hopkinson, "Sebastião Salgado," in Martin Marix Evans, ed., Contemporary Photographers, (New York, 1995), p. 991. BACK
  2. Jonathan Kott, "El drama de la luz: entrevista con Sebastião Salgado," La Jornada Semanal, 5 (Mexico City, 9 April, 1995). My translation; this 1991 interview was originally published in English. BACK
  3. Subsequent references to photos and their page numbers will be in relation to the English version: Sebastião Salgado, Other Americas, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). BACK
  4. Sebastião Salgado, Terra: Struggle of the landless, (London: Phaidon Press, 1997). BACK
  5. Among the better essays on Salgado are Ingrid Sischy, "Photography: Good Intentions," The New Yorker, (9 September, 1991) [reprinted in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, eds. Liz Heron and Vall Williams, (London: J.B. Tauris, 1996)] and Julian Stallabrass, "Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism," New Left Review, 223 (1997). For a Latin American perspective, see Eduardo Galeano, "La luz es un secreto de la basura," La Jornada Semanali, 141 (Mexico City, 23 February, 1992); Naomi Rosenblum wrote a perceptive review of Other Americas, Aperture, 109 (Winter, 1987). BACK
  6. Parts of this discussion were previously published in Spanish, "Enajenación enigmática: América Latina en la fotografía de Sebastião Salgado," La Jornada Semanal, 258 (Mexico City, 22 May, 1994), as well as Galician, "América Latina na fotografía de Sebastião Salgado", Falso pero crible: A metamorfose mediática, (Santiago de Compostela: Ediciones Lea, 1995). BACK
  7. Other Americas, pp. 44-45, 62-63; 74-75; 66-67. BACK
  8. Other Americas, pp. 26-27. BACK
  9. Other Americas, pp. 68-69; Terra, p. 27. BACK
  10. Other Americas, pp. 106-107. BACK
  11. Robert Frank is a Swiss photographer who published The Americans in 1958 (Paris) and 1959 (New York). BACK
  12. Other Americas, p. 31; Terra, p. 61. BACK
  13. Other Americas, pp. 38-39. BACK
  14. Other Americas, p. 101. BACK
  15. Other Americas, pp. 70-71. Another view of this scene appears in Terra, pp. 72-73. BACK
  16. Fotografía de prensa en México: 40 reporteros gráficos, (Mexico City: Procuraduría General de la República, 1992), p. 75. BACK
  17. See the cover of "Mexican Photography," History of Photography, 20:3 (Autumn, 1996). BACK
  18. Susan Kismaric, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1997), p. 203. BACK
  19. Other Americas, pp. 42-43. BACK
  20. Kismaric, p. 97. BACK
  21. Other Americas, pp. 94-95; Terra, pp. 6-7. Another view of this scene appears in Terra, p. 67. BACK
  22. See John Mraz, "Nacho López: Photojournalist of the 1950s," History of Photography, 20:3, p. 214. BACK
  23. Other Americas, pp. 48-49. BACK
  24. Nacho López, Yo, el ciudadano, (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1984). p. 33. BACK
  25. Other Americas, pp. 54-55. BACK
  26. See Amy Conger, Edward Weston in Mexico, 1923-1926$, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), p. 62. BACK
  27. Héctor García, Escribir con luz, (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1984). p. 63 BACK
  28. William Shawcross and Francis Hodgson, "Sebastião Salgado: Man in Distress," Aperture, 108 (Fall, 1987). Julian Stallabrass also makes reference to the "strong religious current"of Salgado's photography. BACK
  29. Other Americas, pp. 86-87. BACK
  30. Other Americas, pp. 18-19 and 24-25. BACK
  31. Yo, el ciudadano, pp. 50-53; John Mraz, La mirada inquieta: nuevo fotoperiodismo mexicano, 1976-1996, (Mexico: Centro de la Imagen-Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1996), p. 62. BACK
  32. The garimpeiros is a theme to which Salgado has evidently returned at different times. The images which appear in Terra were taken in 1986 and 1990. BACK
  33. The Farm Security Administration is the most famous documentary photography project undertaken in the United States. During the depression, the government financed the picture-taking of great photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, etc., to provide propaganda for the New Deal programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. BACK
  34. "Migrations to the cities," Terra, pp. 78-95. BACK
  35. Stallabrass, p. 143. BACK
  36. See note 10. BACK
  37. See note 19. BACK
  38. See note 13. BACK