Too Beautiful

Salgado 4

The celebrated Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado documents the lives of the poor, the marginalized and the dispossessed. In doing so he delineates a world that is rendered largely invisible in our media and brings it into art galleries across the globe. His photographs are formally brilliant and for this he has been roundly criticised.

‘Can suffering be too beautiful?’ asks Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. ‘Mr. Salgado chooses to sentimentalize his subjects — all those beautiful children staring back at us and smiling despite their horrific conditions […] in that respect, his work is sentimental voyeurism and unabashedly manipulative.’ The review suggests that it would be less offensive if Salgado included his subjects’ names: ‘It’s a small difference, but crucial. Names make people into individuals.’

Photographs, other than self-portraits, are always voyeuristic – but sentimental and manipulative? The Hollywoodisation of narrative (as anyone who has applied for documentary funding knows) requires that every story is about an individual and their ‘journey’. In our 24 hour media culture the prevalent Reality TV aesthetic creates an apparent immediacy, inviting us to think the world we are observing is ‘real’, natural and unmediated. In this arena of amateur bakers and aspirant entrepreneurs, house-decorators, dieters, snobs, yobs and brides, the inhabitants of the ‘undeveloped’ world flit across are screens only occasionally and almost always as objects of charity, fear or – that most alienating of emotions – pity.

Dramatic and austere, Salgado’s photographs permit no such patronage. Abstracted because they are black and white, artfully composed, his pictures elevate their subjects from the everyday world and transform them into allegorical visions. Rather than the spurious familiarity of knowing their names, of imagining we can engage with them as individuals, or of emoting over their circumstances, we are put at a commanding distance and forced to look at them in the context of the collective – as a testament to the injustice of our world and the stark dramas of the human condition.

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