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volume 11
june 2008

Sebastião Salgado: Africa

 





  Review of:
  • Sebastião Salgado, Africa; edited by Lélia Salgado and Mia Couto. Cologne: Taschen, 2007 (336 pages, ISBN: 978-3-8228-5621-5).
by Hans Durrer
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  Are Sebastião Salgado's photographs, as many people say, presenting a myopic, even neo-colonial picture of the African continent? Discussing the photographer's latest book, Hans Durrer here takes another view.
 
1

Sebastião Salgado's Africa, an homage to the continent's people and wildlife, has come under attack for rendering, it was claimed, an Africa of cliché. I come to that in a minute — but let's start with the photos.

The first few pages show shots from Angola and Mozambique in 1974/75, when civil wars plagued these countries; followed by pictures of tobacco plantations from Rhodesia, how Zimbabwe in 1976 was still called, of Mozambican refugees in Malawi (1994), of a religious ceremony at which Mozambican widows exorcize the ghosts of their husbands, who were killed in war (1994), of the distribution of food to former FRELIMO fighters (1994), of a woman who had just given birth to triplets in a hospital of Doctors without Borders (1994).

  And then there are photos of war victims in Angola, refugee children in Mozambique, the Himba nomads in Namibia, of leopards, pelicans, zebras, gemsboks and landscapes — great, breathtaking shots that make clear that looking at the world with a camera is different from looking at it with the naked eye, and that not all who look through a viewfinder see the same world. The Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich commented:
  "The landscape pictures are a foretaste of Salgado's Genesis-project, in which he aims at showing Africa's flora and fauna as pristine as possible: as if he wanted to demonstrate that things aren't so bad after all. Maybe this is also a sort of wellness-exercise for the photographer who must have his head full of terrible pictures. Yet the disenchantment follows immediately, for the rest of the tome is again dedicated to African horror zones, from the famine areas of Niger in 1973 to Somalia and Ethiopia to Sudan in 2006."
  Needless to say, one can read these photographs very differently. To me, Salgado's flora and fauna images appeared not at all "as if he wanted to demonstrate that things aren't so bad after all," to me, these pictures radiated something strangely unreal, transcending reality, something magical — they showed me the world as a miracle.
  I also perceived the photos of humans in war, on the run or at work as if not of this world. They often seemed to tell tales of being lost and sometimes they looked staged, very much like still photographs at movie sets, yet I never had the impression that they were actually staged. These pictures, it seemed to me, were simply taken with an eye schooled in dramatic effects.
  ***
2 Left: Tanzania, 1994 — during the genocide, in less than three days over 100,000 Rwandan refugees arrived and formed the camp of Benako (Photograph © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images)

At a roundtable discussion organized by the Berliner Zeitung, the photographer Santu Mofokeng from Johannesburg, his colleague Akinbode Akinbiyi, who lives in Berlin, and Sylvester Ogbechie, a professor of art history at the University of Santa Barbara voiced their opinions on Salgado's work.

  An excerpt:
  Akinbiyi: "... he photographs people in this heroic Riefenstahl-aesthetics. And he adds newer pictures that he calls "Genesis." Empty yet great landscapes from the Namib desert of 2005. And animals!"
  Mofokeng: "This is this old colonial project. Africa is reduced to fauna and flora. And we are the fauna. We are the zoo for European observers. We natives know this well, and for a long time."
  Ogbechiez: "Here, this photo of a Himba-girl — that is a totally pornographic photo of distress although she is young and healthy. Beautiful this cattle herd behind here, all very idyllic. It is a super postcard, it surely will sell well."
  ***
3 Right: Virunga Park on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2004 (Photograph © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images)

That Africa to an African looks different than it might look to a Brazilian is hardly surprising (although Brazil's northeast might remind one at times of Africa) but when Akinbode says: "I don't want our Africa to be merchandised as a rotten continent that needs help from outside. There are many more Africas," one wonders what this has to do with Salgado's book that shows lots of different facets of this continent.

Sabine Vogel, who hosted the roundtable for the Berliner Zeitung said that she counted only two cars in the book. "One is a bullet-ridden wreck next to which lay dead bodies. There is no town, no urbanisation — neither are there slums — there is no modernity in this book. The only machine is a sewing machine in a refugee camp, and a few old umbrellas constitute the few requisites of civilisation."

  Well, if Sabine Vogel and her debaters prefer another Africa-book, they should come up with one. Yet to accuse a photographer of not having produced the book that they wanted is simply beyond the pale. Moreover, it completely misses what photography is all about — for it is the photographer who decides what (s)he wants to photograph.
  By the way: Not only taking photographs is personal and subjective (how could it be otherwise?), looking at photographs is likewise personal and subjective. For instance, I' m not terribly interested in modern Africa, or in colonial Africa. I'm however fascinated by the timeless Africa and its flora and fauna that I find intriguing, unique, marvellous and deeply moving. And this Africa, but not only this, is the one Sebastião Salgado shows me in ways I haven't seen before.
  Last but not least: Not all Africans find Sagaldo's Africa problematic. The texts in the book were written by the Mozambican author Mia Couto.
   
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