Salgado, Broomberg and Chanarin: Lessons learned

Completely unexpectedly, I found myself in London with a few hours to spare… So I headed to the Photographers’ Gallery – surely there would be something interesting to see there. In the tube a poster promoting Sabastiao Salgado’s exhibition ‘Genesis’ at the Natural History Museum caught my eye – enough time to go to Oxford Circus, then South Kensington. Out of the five photographers exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, I felt particularly drawn to the work of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. But I’ll come back to them later. Let’s start with the easy bit: Sebastiao Salgado.

I’m now back home, flicking through the modest booklet that I was given as I entered the Sebastiao Salgado’s  exhibition ‘Genesis’. In this little booklet, the Natural History Museum makes two claims about Salgado’s work. First of all that ‘through this work we hope to enable and inspire better care of our planet’. Secondly that ‘by scientifically documenting Earth’s diversity, the Museum and works such as these equip us with the desire and knowledge to protect it’. I have issues with both claims and specifically with those two words: ‘scientifically’ and ‘diversity’.

There is little that is diverse in Salgado’s photography. ‘Genesis’ presents Salgado’s trademark monochrome. Why cross the continents and face the most challenging weather conditions to present earth and life’s diversity in the same formulaic black, white and silver? Don’t get me wrong, the images are beautiful and as Laura Cumming (2013) writes in The Observer: ‘The lighting is characteristically spectacular, with plenty of backlighting and operatic contrasts’. The answer to my question is simple: ‘Black and white puts everything on equal footing, on the same planet’ (ibid). Cumming is absolutely right. The black and white style puts a veil of uniformity on the subjects. I’m looking at my own black and white photographs of rock bands and artists. What I am about to accuse Salgado of doing, I have done myself; that is, by presenting our subjects ‘on equal footing’ we are denying their identity.

Why do we need earth presented ‘on equal footing’ may I ask? For what purpose? In the name of science? In the name of western science? That very western science which no doubt laughs at the ritual dances and their healing properties of those depicted in one of Salgado’s photographs. In addition, let us not forget that those ‘primitive’ people are seen through Salgado’s lens, therefore through western aesthetics. This begs another question: can such highly stylised visual representation of remote lands and cultures act as a scientific document?

I wrote down the following comments as I was looking intently at one particular photograph: “I’m looking at a portrait of an old nenet in his tent in Siberia. I wonder if this photo would have the same effect in colour. This old man I’m seeing; is it him or a representation of an old nenet seen through the eyes of an accomplished photographer?” This very photograph leads me onto the question of indexicality, which I’d like to summarise as follows: are Salgado’s photographs too good to be true? I cannot see the real nenet in this black and white photograph. Rather, I see the interpretation by a skilled photographer. While I can imagine Salgado in the act of taking the photograph of the old nenet, I have difficulty reconciling the photographic gesture and the end product aptly framed on the wall. While I wholeheartedly believe that Salgado did indeed photograph the nenet in his tchoum, I am very suspicious as to the scientific claims of photographs of this kind.

Moreover, the camera angles in Salgado’s landscape photographs are such that it is as if the photographer were playing God photographing its own creation, from above. Take the photograph of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge for example: the lighting would make us believe that some divinity was visiting the mountains and valleys, which the viewer, incarnated as Bellini’s Saint Francis for the purpose of the exercise, is admiring: nature, light and the holy presence. Of course, I’m making this up, but the exhibition is entitled ‘Genesis’, after all – not an innocent title. But then if Salgado was playing God he wouldn’t have photographed men with apes, nor allowed for the sequence of photographs starting with earth, then moving onto animals and ending with men and women, suggesting a more Darwinist view on the world. Was that the true scientific claim of Salgado’s work? Somehow, I doubt it.

There is a kind of impending doom emanating from the introduction to the exhibition, which I interpreted as: Salgado has photographed earth before we destroy it. A fair point, but the claim that Salgado’s work can inspire us not to destroy it is far fetched in my humble opinion. Since when has beauty led us to change our habits? It usually numbs us – especially beauty from afar. How many punters will think: these remote lands, we won’t go there on holidays, so why would we want to protect them? Why should we want to protect those places we regularly visit for that matter?

‘Primitive’ tribes, we burn their lands to plant palm trees. We plant palm trees to make palm oil. We use palm oil in the western world so that the very few can benefit from the palm oil trade. Those faraway (so faraway) lands are in fairy tales, and fairy tales, to my knowledge, have never motivated us to sharpen our ethical bends… on the contrary; they numb us.

Salgado may have contributed to science in the eye of the Natural History Museum but, in mine, he has framed the subjects he photographed not just physically but also symbolically. He has elevated these important topics too high and handed them over to science rather than giving it back to people. Science is not what will make people stop trashing our earth. No, because science is political.

Earlier on that day, I had visited the Photographers’ Gallery to see the 2013 Deutsche Borse Photography winners’ work: War Primer 2 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Adam Broomberg (2013) in an interview said this:

‘Photojournalism functions in that same sphere compromised by the landscape in which it operates. It can’t be too critical or too confrontational. It became very clear to us that when operating in a traditional photojournalistic mode, you could not be radical in your gestures. The art world by contrast, operates outside of this public space. It offers a context in which it is easier to be more critical’.

I am automatically drawn back to Salgado’s work and would argue, following Broomberg reasoning, that operating within a traditional scientific mode is limiting. This is what I would accuse Salgado of doing. He produced scientific shots (‘scientific’ does not equate to ‘accurate’ in my mind) in a Broomberg sense of the term. Thus Salgado’s photographs are not artistic ones (even though the images are beautiful).

In the same interview, Broomberg goes on to say: ‘There are too many layers and so you can’t really read it in one simple, quick way. It demands too much of your time to have an instant emotional response’. I would thoroughly agree with him. Twenty four hours have passed since I saw the book War Primer 2 exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, and I am still processing what I saw – every so often having flashbacks of photographs from the book. The low-resolution images used by Broomberg and Chanarin, as opposed to Salgado’s highly stylised photographs, are questioning us on many layers indeed: photography as a propaganda tool; low-resolution images to add truth to the story, and in so doing, history; man’s disrespect for another man’s corpse; the political apparatus; our relationship with the media, war, death, what kind of legacy are we leaving to the next generation…

Salgado’s contrived aesthetic is forcing us to look back, to see a ghostly promised land from some mythical times, while Broomberg and Chanarin are addressing us in the present, in the guts of the here-and-now, and questioning our future.

Beauty does not last – I knew this really! If I find a photo ‘beautiful’, if, for example, lighting and water are stunningly captured (like in the photography of Salgado), then I look at this photograph for just those features. I acknowledge the technical ability of the photographer but in truth nothing ‘pricks’ me, to borrow Barthes’ words.

What have I learned from those two different practices? There is no point travelling thousands of miles and having expensive photographic equipment to make an impact. I knew this too! What I really want to say is that the photographic process per se is not what really, truly, matters perhaps. For me, comparing both works, it is the thought-process and the social and political conscience, the sense of social responsibility that are important. The work of the photographer is, then, to re-assess his/her own practice for maximum impact. It just dawned on me that Broomberg and Chanarin did not use a single camera to produce this piece of work, yet it is they who have won the 2013 Deutsche Borse Photography prize, as an acknowledgement of their significant contribution to photography. What I have also learned is this: it’s not what you see that makes you think but what that evokes in you and how it taps into your social conscience that is important. I am in admiration of what Broomberg and Chanarin have achieved. Now, one question remains: How am I going to put into practice what I have just learned?

I saw this TED talk by Salgado after writing this post and I wish I had watched it before going to see the ‘Genesis’ exhibition. In his rough English Salgado does a much better job at explaining why he took those pictures than the Natural History Museum. I guess, this is another classic example of when the curatorial process gets in the way of the photographer’s intentions and work (Fox and Caruana, 2012).

Cumming, L. (2013), ‘Sebastião Salgado: Genesis – review (14 April 2013)’. The Observer. [last accessed 25 June 2013]

Fox, A. and Caruana, N. (2012), Behind the image: Research in photography. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.

Terracciano, E. (2013), ‘Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / War Primer 2: An Interview with Adam Broomberg (April 2013)’. Photomonitor. [last accessed 25 June 2013]


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