Estrangement in Sebastião Salgado’s Work

Book cover of "Exodus" by Sebastião Salgado
Exodus by Sebastião Salgado (Taschen, 2nd edition, 2016)

As I looked through section two of Sebastião Salgado’s Exodus, with an eye to what can be said about these photographs, I ran into a couple of obstacles. The first: How can you not feel when looking at these? The two photographs that struck me in this sense included first a picture of what might be a family holding a dead body whose eyes are wide open. The second one was a picture of multiple bodies laid on top of one another, while behind them a tractor picked up other corpses with the use of its mechanical arm. These pictures scream out of the page, and I can’t understand how you can not listen, how can they not shake you. And given their almost catatonic effect (i.e. shell-shock), to write about these pictures seemed irresponsible. The precarity of those in the picture seems unspeakably distant from discussions of whether the aesthetic function of the pictures takes away from their capacity for truth and political mobilization. The screams coming from these pictures drown out other voices in their urgency.

If each picture carries its own paralyzing scream, not only is one forced to listen, but one hears it coming from someone. Salgado’s Exodus is a book of photos that depicts “humanity on the move. It is a disturbing story because few people uproot themselves by choice. Most are compelled to become migrants, refugees, or exiles by forces beyond their control, by poverty, repression, or wars.”[1. Salgado Sebastião and Salgado Lélia Wanick, Exodus (Cologne: Taschen, 2016), 7.] In the second section of Exodus, titled “The African tragedy: A Continent Adrift,” there are multiple pictures of what appears to be a group of refugees on the march. These pictures suggest a continuity, though actually it’s unclear whether it’s the same group of refugees that reappears in more than one picture in the section. In the introduction to the book, Salgado says the pictures were taken in many African countries: Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, the Congo, Tanzania, and Burundi.1  And so, it can’t be the same group of refugees across the photos. Yet these pictures, more than emphasizing the different locations and the specificity of each, offer shared images of exodus, the dead body, the refugee camp, and the vast landscapes between the cities of the continent.

One photograph portrays a group of people walking down a road, covered in fog, with a mountain to one side, and a group of bodies lying on the ground opposite. The march runs right in between. The bodies are scattered in the foreground. The one closest to us lies facedown, barefoot, with a child lying right beside their head. It looks like someone has thrown a jacket on top of their upper body. If our eyes then look up the frame, three stretchers, carrying covered bodies, make a diagonal line from the first body we saw. Behind them, a child sits by a body that lies uncovered on the ground. It is unclear who is dead and who isn’t in this group of people, besides those on the stretchers. Through the center of this image walks the long march, coming from the fog which dissolves into the horizon at left. To the right side of the frame a mountain rises from the fog. Below it, one can barely make out some tents. It is unclear whether this might be a camp. The mountain in the picture, however, seems out of place. Why show it? Is it to document where these refugees are? What relationship could they have to this environment?

The environment in question is highlighted by the mountain peak. It’s the sublime object in the picture, standing obverse to the bodies in the foreground. They seem to stand in obscene contradiction to each other. Why include the object of beauty opposite to dead bodies, the evidence of the utmost precarity? This affective polarity is intersected by the march that recedes into the fog.

If the picture is an interpretation of what happened, does it brazenly suggest the aesthetic function of the mountain in the picture might have an analogous function for those in the setting? Is it simply spectacular? Does it add to the sense of what it’s like to be there? Whose sense?

The polarity, in its obscenity, creates a sense of estrangement. The scream of this picture sparks out of the frame and tells a story. Compositionally, the mountain stands opposite to the bodies almost to prove equally as distant from the lives of the marchers in between. And what is this distance? What is the relationship of the refugees to those who have passed?

The stretchers on the ground tell us that the refugees have carried the dead with them for some time. The dominant, if not the only figures in the lower half of the picture, they give the photograph weight. The eye can’t avoid them. It interrupts the “beauty” of the picture. Yet they are also a burden for the marchers. Maybe they are still unmourned, awaiting burial. Though, where? Herein is the distance. They lie exposed as an interrupted process of mourning, an inability. And if to mourn is to let the presence of a person become memory, so releasing their body, then this picture points to the industry of the refugees, who might not have the time and energy to do so. The burial awaits the end of the march  In this sense, any non-functional (i.e. aesthetic, religious) value the refugees might hold for the mountain seems to be held in suspension. If the industry of a refugee doesn’t allow them to mourn for their dead, it also might foreclose the vulnerability on which the peak affects its beauty.  Yet, simultaneously, as the refugees still carry the dead with them, these deferred relationships might momentarily come back, as is detailed by the child who sits next to a body on the ground. In contrast, while it is unclear whether the tents under the mountain signify an encampment, they stand in a relational contrast to the mountain in the picture: people are gathered there, which points to the priority of their lodging. That is, there might be something of actual help found in these tents. Whether this is actually the case stands well outside the frame.

The corpses, in relation to the peak, accentuate the marching itself: the going, the business, the work and restlessness of these refugees. The picture is now a reminder that they are taking action, to some capacity, to live a less precarious life. By the time these pictures are printed, the refugees most likely are in another place altogether. The viewer of the picture is, then, not in a position to give them charity.2 Rather, the photo demands something else.

This picture is an intersection. One diagonal extends between the bodies and the peak. The intersecting line is the march. Yet this diagonal is only a segment, for we don’t see or know where those marching come from or where they are going. It’s up to the commitment of the viewer to give both a “history” and a “destination” to the picture. Yet, again, there is an estrangement. If the refugees are in a certain sense uprooted, they are displaced from a connection to their past. Their destination might be the nearest haven of global capitalism. And vis-á-vis capitalism’s process of selection, they might encounter an uprooted world of commodities in alienated relation to the past they carry. It’s this process of selection that gives us Salgado’s work. This haven is certainly less precarious than the one the refugees come from, though they are historically intertwined. The capitalist process of selection not only gives us the pictures but also causes the conditions for the existence of the pictures. The past, the weight the refugees carry, harnesses revolutionary potential due to its very estrangement: a lost home hasn’t been subsumed under mercantile laws, and can’t, because it was left behind, unwholly mourned. And it does not simply become the multicultural diversity of late capitalism, but the call of what was geo-historically different, now a void taken up by the ecstatic work of imagining an alternative to the crisis at hand. “Ecstatic”, because the community and communion of leaving dire precarity has the potential to take its convalescence and responsibility as its very aim.3

The picture masks this latent rapture by contradicting it with the dead bodies, calling attention to the labor of the refugees caught in this polarity.

  1. Salgado, Exodus, 9.
  2. The specific facts and contexts of journalism don’t make the frame, nor the introduction to Exodus. The viewer doesn’t know who these people are, nor how to reach them. Why are these pictures, then, printed in art-books and not in the accessible press?
  3. It occurs to me that all I know in my life is running. With the refugees only the subjects of representation, this ecstatic work is often inverted, displaced, and taken up into Hollywood movies, leaving the West, colorful now, with the recurring tropes of the Hero, the Beloved, and the return Home.
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