To begin my contextual research for the Person at Work brief I decided to look at well known photojournalists who have captured those at work in the past. I was particularly drawn to learning more about Sebastiao Salgado as I really loved his Genesis project that he created showing unspoilt landscapes, wildlife and remote communities, and was aware that many of his other photographs were taken during the industrial revolution, showing manual workers at that time.
Before looking in depth at his actual images of workers I decided to find out more about the photographer himself and I have come to find him quite an inspirational figure. In terms of how he creates his photographic images and also how he came to be a photographer.
The now Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado originally pursued a career in economics and achieved a masters degree in the subject. He developed an interest in photography around the age of 26 and from then used black and white photography, to find beauty in brutal subjects of poverty, hardship and oppression in various cultures. His work serves to inform and raise global awareness of varying human conditions, which is presented through his well known books, such as Other Americans which was published in 1986. Which shows photographs from his nine year study of well known culture in Latin American. Salgado is known for being a very intense person who is involved deeply in political activism and I think it is really interesting that his work has such purpose to it, and how he makes use of the power of the visual image and the responsibilities that come with that.
I have been reading Salgado’s seminal book titled Workers which was published in 1993. The book is beautifully curated and contains photographs of workers in places such as mines and commercial fisheries. Revealing the harsh conditions of these large scale industrial sites.
One photograph that really grabbed me is the first double page image we see of gold miners in Serra Pelada, Brazil. The photograph is one in a group of 28 photographs that Salgado took of this North-West Brazilian Mine in 1986, where he lived with the workers and observed them for several weeks.
The photograph was taken at a time where Brazil was experiencing a gold rush, and Salgado said he witnessed around fifty thousand workers who laboured at Serra Pelada while he was there. Who were each making as many as sixty trips down the cliff and back per day to carry sacks weighing around thirty to sixty kilograms. This image was taken at quite a distance by Salgado and despite being so far away, these multiple directions we see these streams of people entering the frame of the image, suggests that this is only a section of a vast area of mining. I think the scale is particularly interesting in this image and that he made the decision to take the photograph so far away, because although Salgado is evidently not a minimalist with his subject matter, a lot of his images possess a very minimalistic quality to them. In terms of this photograph these huge numbers of people are framed in such a way that reduces these stream like shapes of people into larger clusters of more singular forms over these rocks.
I find this image particularly powerful as the distance it is taken at allows us to peer into this scene, taking in all these tiny details, in this vast chaos that would be everyday working life for these people at this time. What really stands out to me is the way there are channels of people taking these sacks up to the top of the mine and then back down again, and with the scale they appear at in this image, these workers bare resemblance to herds of animals we see in photographs taken of the African plains. I think this is particularly emotive as these people will be working for 20 cents per day and they are so dehumanised in the way they are treated like animals to do these repetitive yet massively strenuous tasks. The way Salgado has captured these people really reflects the conditions of the manual labour for those in poverty at this time, and the nature of this photograph forces us as viewers to be confronted with these working conditions, with the numbers we see experiencing this careless operation.
Another photograph I find really interesting by Salgado is this image taken in Bangladesh where he immersed himself in observing ship breaking. Where workers would take apart old ships, once mired in the mud by hand using cutting torches. Which is still very dangerous manual work being done by those in poverty in Bangladesh and other middle Eastern places today.
This photograph shows the great deal of immersion in worker culture that Salgado is able to achieve and patience he used in waiting for these perfect moments to capture, and as well as being able to compose an image brilliantly he makes skilled use of the decisive moment. Which in this case is this single human figure in the foreground shadowed by the remnant of a huge ship in the background. This gives a real haunting feeling to this image. As though this is some kind of calm after the storm for this worker, walking away from this dark metal structure, where he is likely to have spent hours doing gruelling work to help take this structure apart.
This photograph in my opinion is a great example of Salgado’s individuality that he maintains with his work. In terms of these unique compositions and ways in which he has been able to capture these workers. He also has a very recognisable style to his work during this era of photography through the use of high contrast with lots of grain, which emphasises more simplistic shapes, depth and texture, in his often more complex subject matter. I think these very dark areas which are emphasised in his work also create intriguing areas of negative space against the more grainy, textured elements of his photograph. Which I think are particularly powerful in these images of big structures like these old ships, the shipping yards themselves and the mines he has photographed. As these heavy shadows really evoke a haunting sense of the how it was in these inhospitable environments these people were working in.
Overall I find Salgado’s approach to photojournalism and social documentary photography very inspirational, and it has really made me think a lot more about the different ways I am able to capture workers in my own work. Personally I really like how Salgado used his work to explore social and economic conditions in different environments and that he uses his photography to communicate messages about the world. I also admire his sheer commitment to photojournalism and even though he insists he is a documentarian and not an artist, I think his work’s individuality in terms of style and composition is highly commendable.
Images taken from: Sebastiao Salgado, 1997. Salgado, Sebastio, Workers,. New edition Edition. Phaidon Press.