Narrative -Sebastião Salgado

When writing stories at school we are told you should have a beginning, a middle and an end. As you progress through the years this becomes a little more sophisticated; you need to take into consideration the plot, the characters, the setting, the complication, the climax and the resolution. The story is more interesting if the reader has to infer meaning, that you use metaphors, symbolism, strong emotive language and vivid imagery.

Photo-stories work on exactly the same principle. If photographs contain the above they can work as stand-alone images or when edited properly, put into a specific order, interconnected events can tell a complete story. Re-arranging the order of the images can impact upon and even alter the story being told.

Exercise – Information and expression

Explore the denotative and connotative aspects of the documentary work of Sebastião Salgado by reading the essay written by Mraz: Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’ (2002).

Research the work referred to within the essay and evidence this research in your learning log.

Before launching into the essay I had a scout around online Googling dear old Sebastião. I was first introduced to him several years ago through his body of work about Kuwait  which was first published in 1991. Now 100 of these images have been reproduced, 25 years later, in Kuwait: A Desert on Fire. There are some truly stunning images within this limited edition book, for which he deservedly won the Oskar Barnack Award, recognising outstanding photography on the relationship between man and the environment. To be honest apart from this and Genesis I don’t really know much about his other bodies of work, although I do recognise some of his images when they come up from other studies I have completed. Genesis has been described as:

Mastering the monochrome with an extreme deftness to rival the virtuoso Ansel Adams, Salgado brings black-and-white photography to a new dimension; the tonal variations in his works, the contrasts of light and dark, recall the works of Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour.

Whilst I really liked the compositions and the subjects taken – I went to the exhibition and I bought the book – I can’t agree with the above. I think there was nothing deft about his post-processing and someone should have told him to walk away from the RAW sliders…I can’t seem to find many reviews that agree with me…but thankfully I did which makes me feel less insecure about the review I did back in 2013! I agree with the comments made by most of the aesthetic beauty of the images, and producing what others expect to see, yeps, sometimes there is nothing wrong with a picture that just is good to look at… but I still can’t get over the post-processing…

Jose – whose work is featured in Context and Narrative, wrote a brilliant review at the time for WeAreOCA.


Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America – John Mraz

To understand the context of the images Salgado took of the Latin Americans – Other Americas (1986), Terra (1997) and Migrations (2000) you probably need to know that he was born in Brazil, but left in 1969 due to his opposition to the military dictatorship and subsequent involvement in the activist movement. This meant when he eventually returned, he was capturing images that resonated with him on a very personal/intimate level as well as being an outsider.

Despite being hailed as a ‘legend of photo-journalism’ Salgado attracts his critics, me included from time to time, in the way he presents his work, his preference for grainy images, and how he tends to pander to his audience. With the Other Americas Mraz accused him of giving ‘his consumers in Europe and the USA what they expect and want…the exotic other.’

Other Americas

Other Americas was Salgado’s first book and as with a lot of his work it has mixed reviews, not that I’d expect his publisher to say anything other than it was brilliant (although it was also deemed award-winning) and Mraz is highly critical of it throughout his essay.

The overall tone is described as one of overwhelming ‘sadness, misery, doom and mystery’ and on looking at this video of his book I can understand why. The choice of music by the YouTube subscriber didn’t help!


What I couldn’t get over again was some of the post-processing! How much was that sky darkened? Look at the halo around those kids? It creates an ominous atmosphere and a sense of foreboding.



It would appear that Salgado opted to make his images darker to convey a dour, depressing outlook. Mraz wonders if this portrayal of an alienated rural community was influenced by Frank’s alternative representation of the USA in The Americans.

Mraz’s other criticisms of the book are Salgado’s choice to: photograph only rural areas, the repeated signifiers, his style of narrative form and lack of accompanying text that did not allow for any other interpretation other than to believe this was a ‘natural’ way of life for Latin Americans. There was no hint of the ‘historical forces, such as dependent capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism’ which was making life so difficult. Why were all the subjects so miserable, even on supposedly joyous occasions such as a wedding, or celebrations on The Day of the Dead?

… photographs are by nature ambiguous and polysemic texts; their narrative capacity is weak and their meaning is often determined by the immediate context created for their publication: the synthesis of text, titles and […] the accumulated significance of the images themselves…


What can you read into this? Why is the Bride in the front seat on her own looking so downcast? Are they on their way to the ceremony  or  away from the ceremony? Does she feel forced into the marriage, or maybe the groom has failed to show? Who is the woman? A friend or a relation? Have they had a disagreement? Is this why she too looks unhappy? Maybe she is against the marriage? There are so many connotations. The signifiers we can see are: a desert, derelict buildings, more ominous skies, two segregated silhouettes in the background… the future definitely does not look rosy…

On watching this video several times I can see Mraz’s point, the signifiers all point to death, oppression and alienation from each other. I could see: darkness, religious icons staring out, train tracks, crosses, poverty, funerals, dead bodies, cemeteries, fog, unsmiling faces, bones, workers in fields bending over, symbolism of the cross, sharp pointed plants, lots of windows/doors/frames separating people.

Mraz argues that as a fine art photo-journalist Salgado made the fatal mistake of using symbols within the images that failed to ‘adequately present the particularity ‘ of the situation. The audience only picks up on the misery and despair because the cumulative effect of the photo-essay’s sombre content gives us ‘no other interpretive framework.’

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