Refugees

"Refugee camp in Tanzania" (1994) Sebastiao Salgado

To choose a SALGADO photograph is a really difficult task because this Brazilian photographer has innumerable pictures, which move and incite reflection on the viewer’s part. He has devoted many years, more than five, to bring each of his two great portfolios to fruition: “The workers” and “The migrations”. Salgado is for me a colleague in two senses of the word because before becoming a photographer he worked as an economist in some international organizations like FAO if I remember correctly. Probably this work brought him into contact with the subjects that became his obsession. And perhaps for his reason his works are so systematic and have such high levels of objectivity and depth at the same time.

But Salgado is not only an excellent photo reporter specialising in social themes. He is in addition an extraordinary artist with an unmistakable style which gives great impact to all the subjects he works on. The way he captures the light, the range of greys that he obtains in his photographs, always shot with black and white Kodak film, the perfect balance between the foreground and background are recurrent elements that we can find in all his photographs.

He has been criticised specifically for often creating beautiful pictures of elements or situations, which are far from beautiful. That, instilled with an aesthetic attitude, he could create images so unreal that they confuse the spectator about the true nature of what they deal with. Everything is a matter of opinion but I thing the Salgado isn’t hiding anything, on the contrary he makes a great effort to show us everything he sees in his trips around the world. What really happens is that in his eyes, and mine also, misery and misfortune can exist alongside dignity and above all beauty. He looks for it and he finds it. And for that reason his images without being sensationalist or repulsive have reached a huge number of people; and as Marc Riboud, another great French photographer, said “even if his photographs have not changed reality they have contributed in showing it”.

This picture I have chosen shows a refugee camp in Tanzania. It’s an image composed with a large scope and demands a bigger format, that unfortunately we don’t have available. First thing in the morning these hundreds or thousands of anonymous refugees begin to emerge from their improvised tents some of them made of plastic and a few sticks, whatever can be carried on their backs. Some pots begin to steam and maybe they will warm up something for breakfast. There are no protagonists except for some recognizable figures in the foreground. But even they don’t stand out; they integrate perfectly in the successive rows of human beings who subsist in the camp. In this barely sense it’s a picture where the individual counts for little; he has almost nothing that differentiates him from the others. Their dramatic condition has resulted in their very personalities being dissolved into the collective. They are piled one on the other as if, like this, they feel more protected, as if they are looking for the warmth of the group. And you can’t identify any particular activity, there is no plan; they have got here and they are just waiting. In the background the sun is breaking through the clouds giving a dramatic, apocalyptic tone, to the picture.