There is a set of photographs taken by Sebastiao Salgado that explains the viewer both who Salgado is and why he covers the worker's plight throughout the world. The images are set in a gold mine in Brazil called Serra Pelada which is a vast pit where people toil daily to dig gold from the mud. The people dig the mud from the pit using the meanest of tools (pick, shovels) which they then put into wicker baskets. The baskets, weighing between "30 and 60 kilograms" (Stallabrass), or 65 to 130 pounds, are then carried up wooden ladders. The ladders are approximately 50 feet tall (and can be more), and the workers make as many as 60 trips per day with their baskets (Stallabrass). For each trip, the worker is paid the equivalent of 20 United States cents on average. The photographs taken by Salgado are from near and far. He wishes to show the viewer both the enormity of the undertaking and the humanity of the people working in the gold pit. This is not some ancient mine where workers are driven to work as slaves because they are a conquered race, these photos were taken in the 1980's and they resonate a feeling of disbelief. It is difficult to fathom, for the people who live with a modernist "neoliberal worldview" that such places exist. Unfortunately, they do exist, and Sebastiao Salgado has taken upon himself to document the fact that the world may have moved past such apparent slave labor in some parts of the world, but most of the globe still exists in harsh working conditions. This paper looks at the life of Sebastiao Salgado, how photographs have worked as an instrument of social justice, and the impact that Salagado's book "Workers," and the photographs in it, have captured the social injustice against workers in the twentieth century.
The photographer in question, Sebastiao Salgado, was not always a photojournalist. As a matter of fact he was once an economist who was more in the side of the extreme capitalists he protests with his photographs rather than a social activist. He was born in a small fishing village on the edge of a large forest in Brazil. This area was then one of the most dense forests in Brazil, but now, because of the slash and burn techniques employed by area farmers, is reduced to less than 0.3% of its former verdure. Since the area was small it did not provide the educational opportunities a bright boy like Sebastiao wanted. He had to go to school more than one hundred miles away to finish his secondary education. The next ten years he moved around, he also married in 1967, and worked in his education. He finished with a doctorate in economics in 1971 in Paris. From there he went to work for the International Coffee Organization in London, the start of what promised to be a brilliant career in economics (The Guardian).
Then something happened to derail those plans. In his work for the World Bank, Sebastiao often had to make trips to Africa, and on one such trip he took his wife's camera. He wanted to record some of the workers and other scenes he had seen there, and that moment changed his life. In 1973, he gave up his work as an economist and decided to work full time as a photographic chronicler of the world (Bakre). Salgado and his family moved back to Paris from London, and he started to work for a studio in Paris called Gamma. "In 1979 Sebastiao left Gamma and joined Magnum Photos, where he would stay for 15 years. Along with many reportages in several countries for a variety of European and American magazines, in 1984 he finished his work on the Indians and peasants of Latin America" (The Guardian). This book and these people were to become a passion for him as he continued to chronicle the plight of downtrodden workers around the world.
His greatest project was probably that found in the book "Workers" (Bakre). The photos in the book were a compilation of the work that he had been doing for more than a decade and included depictions of workers around the world. It was this book that gained him the enormous worldwide fame he enjoys to this day. The celebrity that Salgado has gained have allowed him to pursue his passion for documenting how the majority of people in the world live.
How Photographic Work Serves Social Justice
Salgado was not the first person to attempt to document how workers around the world are exploited for just pennies a day. He is just one in a long list of men and women who have worked to document social injustice throughout the world. But, he is one of the first to venture to all areas of the globe to do so.
Early pictures documenting the abuses of the lower classes by capitalistic overlords can be seen in paintings, wood cuttings and sculptures from Europe in the nineteenth century. The pictures showed a peasant class in some of the wealthiest nations on the Earth who worked jobs such as chimney sweeps to make sure that the rest of London and Paris could remain heated (Crow). These people were stylized by many authors (most famously Charles Dickens), but they were also seen in paintings begging for bread, and even in early photographs. The poor of the world's great capitalist cities were shown as the serfs had been in the centuries before. It was a shock to many in the merchant and upper classes that people actually lived like this. Their carriages rarely carried them past the slums or the poor farms that existed in abundance.
Photojournalists have a window with which they can expose the world to the world's issues. It is not enough to be told that something is wrong; to connect a person must truly see what is happening. The statement "A picture is worth a thousand words" is as true now as when it was first uttered. In essence, "Photography's versatility is exemplified through three varying positions: the varying subjects portrayed in a photograph, the differing public who view the photographic object, and the widespread accessibility of the medium" (Arceyut-Frixione). The fact that the photograph can be taken in one spot, published in media around the world, and then seen by billions of other people, show that photojournalists have among the most potentially arousing voices on the planet. Of course, there are those who say that the medium is not as true as others because it can be so easily altered, and, generally, only tells one side of a social argument (Arceyut-Frixione), but as far as social injustice is concerned, a photograph does not have to be altered to prove that it exists around the world. That is exactly why Salgado used the medium. He wanted to tell the stories of how workers lived, throughout the world, to those who belonged to the, so called, "golden billion" (Socialist Worker) who, in general, knew very little of this reality.
Sebastiao Salgado's Social Intent
Salgado has many different anthologies, but he is most famous for the one entitles Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age. The terminology he used in the title is interesting because he was trying to get a reaction from readers prior to their reading the book. Archeology is a science that deals with artifacts that have long been dead, and tries to reconstruct the past using the bones of their lives. This includes actual bones, shards of pottery, and other elements of daily life that reveal the culture of those being studied. Salgado's title was a direct elusion to this scientific undertaking. He was showing the people upon whose bones the present world republican governments had been built. He had already shown how workers were exploited in the mines of Brazil and the farms of India, but he was looking to paint a broader sketch than any he had previously drawn.
Workers is a look at communities from different parts of the globe that have the commonality of existing just at abject poverty while they work exhausting hours to preserve themselves. The images are black and white depictions "divided into six categories -- agriculture, food, mining, industry, oil, and construction" (Wanick). Salgado traveled to 23 different countries to bring these images of how workers lived in other worlds to the reality of the Western world (Bakre).
One of his pictures in the agriculture section is of a worker who is rolling cigars on a plantation in Central America. The workers hands are stained, this can be seen even those the fingers are naturally dark, and they are slightly deformed from the work that they do. The photograph only shows the workers hands because they are enough to tell the story of a person who works many hours a day for low wages…