A man sleeps under a dirty blanket beside a vast rippling expanse of water. A woman, perhaps his wife, waits, her arms wrapped around her sari. In the distance a modern city stretches across the horizon. A bird, blurred and flapping, swoops down behind the pair.
The photograph, one of the many striking images in Sebastiao Salgado’s new exhibition, depicts poor migrants on Marina Drive, overlooking Bombay, waiting for food handouts. It epitomises one of the major themes in the Brazilian-born photographer’s work–the cycle of displacement and migration in the developing world.
Salgado noticed, while completing his award-winning previous project ‘Workers’, that mass production is driving people into swollen urban centres like Mexico City, Manila, Jakarta and Sao Paulo. In his native Brazil, for instance, thousands of small family farms have been replaced by a few enormous agribusinesses. Some of the former owners are employed as part time workers. Most, however, make their way to the cities.
Salgado is himself a migrant of sorts. During his childhood his family moved from a farming village to a large town. After the 1968 generals’ coup he left Brazil to finish his PhD in France. He trained as an economist, but purely by chance discovered photography on a field trip to Rwanda. He has gone on to produce some of the most powerful images of the last three decades. The ex picture editor of the Guardian Eamonn McCabe describes Salgado’s work as ‘iconic’ and ‘overwhelming’.
The exhibition, tucked away on the third floor of the Barbican, is a sprawling record of humanity on the move–sometimes in search of a better life, sometimes fleeing war and persecution. It opens with a spectacular picture of a once prosperous street in Kabul now reduced to rubble. It goes on to cover the desperate attempts of Moroccans to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in tiny motorboats, the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia, the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi and the ongoing plight of the Kurds.
However it’s not just the worthy subject matter that makes this exhibition so moving. It is also the exceptional elegance and drama of the photography. For example Salgado’s shot of a small Croatian boy rubbing his eye, standing at the end of a straight path that leads back to a stationary train–where he lives with 120 other refugees–is a stunning composition. Its impact is strengthened immeasurably by the beauty of the image. But whatever your view, as the British photojournalist Don McCullin recently observed, ‘Salgado has managed to keep making people sit up and take notice.’
Neither is this exhibition especially depressing or gloomy. Of course the images are about suffering, but they are also about survival and struggle. Salgado believes he has failed if his work only provokes compassion. He wants his audience to understand that there is a solution. Consequently a considerable amount of space is devoted to the political campaigns of both the Brazilian landless workers’ movement and the Zapatistas.
Nowhere is this struggle for survival more apparent than the section of the show dedicated to the children involved in migrations and upheavals. During Salgado’s travels he was often surrounded by crowds of excited children. In exchange for peace and quiet he offered to take their pictures.
The resulting photographs are powerful and striking–a Palestinian child born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, a Bosnian boy standing in front of a wall pitted by bullets, an Angolan girl in an old woman’s dress, all defiant and strong, but children all the same.
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