Callum Colley paints a vivid picture of Sebastiao Salgado’s photographic oeuvre.

Sebastiao Salgado (left) and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2006

An elderly woman sits on the hard, wooden steps of a railway carriage, cloaked in dark drapery. The little of her face that protrudes from her hood is worn and tired. Her nose and chin are pronounced. Her brow overhangs her eyes, casting them in shadow. One of her gnarled hands is clenched awkwardly over her knee. The other holds an ambiguous white packet: perhaps it’s her lunch. Her crude shoes point slightly inwards on the wonky cobbles. There is another carriage in the background; a copse of bare trees pushes over it, into the dreary sky. Is this a place of work? Does she come here every day just to keep away the gnawing penury that her clothing hints at? Are we intruding on her one moment of respite?

Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado documents the destitute and the hopeless. His images capture those moments of such unappreciable agony and despair that they make the ambiguous word trauma seem rather vacuous and clumsy. Two babies sleep, on a filthy blanket laid over disused railway tracks, in a deserted shanty street; an emaciated man lies as a foetus, holding his throat and looking resignedly into the course maize that forms his mattress; bloody figures lie prostrate on the dirt, beside a rusty, overturned truck. Here it is difficult to separate the gory human forms from the wares they once carried. Everywhere there is chaos, hurt, and fear.

Salgado shoots entirely in greyscale. For many this method is gimmickry, and belies an indulgent sort of atavism. For Salgado though, his achromatic work is a reflection of a broader ideology. Educated as an economist and collaborator with Unicef, Salgado views the human race as a collective: “different in colour, language, culture and opportunities, but people’s feelings and reactions are alike. His images cannot be situated in history by the graininess of their colours, nor is it easy to work out their location. Time and space are rendered an ambiguous greyscale: a platform for individual expression as part of the human collective.

Salgado’s subjects refuse to remain comfortable abstractions: instead, they hold your gaze and remind you they are human. You find yourself facing not an inert image, but a breathing, feeling fragment of life. His images draw you into dialogue, forcing you to find life in the chaos and unhappiness of an undignified world. Through despair and cruelty, unfairness and indignity, the uplifting part Salgado’s study is that, through it all, life hangs on.

A gallery of Salgado’s work is available here:


Calum Colley

Image by Agensia Brâsil