Photo exhibit portrays Third World

March 15, 1992|By Edward J. Sozanski | Edward J. Sozanski,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- How different the world looks when we see it though the eyes of someone who doesn't share our biases, especially when that observer comes from beyond the orbit of the world's wealthy, industrialized nations. Much of the world lies outside that orbit, and thus fails to register in our social and political consciousness.

How much of the world is that, actually? Well, judging by our mass media, most of Central and South America, almost all of Africa and substantial portions of Asia and Southeast Asia, violent revolutions excepted. We in the West fail to see those parts of the world because they seem not to matter much to us.

They do matter to Sebastiao Salgado, a 48-year-old Brazilian photojournalist who has been working in the Third World for nearly 20 years. Not only has he traveled extensively in the world's less-developed countries, he appears to prefer it. His trips aren't the hit-and-run affairs typical of Western newsmen covering a disaster; Mr. Salgado once spent 15 months in Africa covering a famine caused by drought.

It's abundantly clear from the exhibition of Mr. Salgado's photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art here that he's not just a documentarian, but an advocate. He's a romantic humanist in the tradition of the late W. Eugene Smith; his image of a nurse in Chad ministering to a malnourished boy is strikingly reminiscent of Mr. Smith's famous picture of a Japanese woman bathing a child deformed by mercury poisoning.

Mr. Salgado delivers facts that are frequently unpleasant, but he always grants his subjects their inherent dignity. He is compassionate without being sentimental, but he isn't squeamish; some of his famine images, such as an emaciated child hanging in a sling scale, are almost too disturbing to more than glance over.

Because Mr. Salgado lives in Paris and works in the less-affluent parts of the globe, his work isn't widely known in the United States. This exhibition, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is his first major museum show in this country. It already has been seen on the West Coast and in New York, and is accompanied by a handsome book, "An Uncertain Grace," published by the Aperture Foundation.

The Corcoran version of the show, which continues through next Sunday, is made up of 72 black-and-white prints, all in a 20-by-24-inch format. They describe three major subjects -- famine in the Sahel region of Africa, primarily Ethiopia and Sudan; peasant life in South America, and manual labor throughout the world.

As a member of the Magnum photo agency, Mr. Salgado accepts commercial assignments, and photographs some of these in color. He was photographing President Ronald Reagan for a magazine assignment on March 30, 1981, when the President was shot by John W. Hinckley Jr. One of his images of the fallen president, snapped instinctively and printed from a color slide, was widely reproduced, which gave Mr. Salgado a certain amount of recognition.

Ironically, he isn't interested in this kind of event-oriented photojournalism; in his extended, self-generated projects, such as the series on South American peasants, he tries to assemble composite pictures of ordinary people sometimes caught in extraordinary circumstances. He always makes these pictures in black and white, because he believes the process most effectively conveys his feelings toward his subjects.

Mr. Salgado was trained as an economist in Brazil, at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and at the University of Paris, where he completed course work for a doctorate. He was 29 years old and working in London in 1973 for the International Coffee Organization, attempting to encourage the diversification of coffee plantations in Africa, when he began to photograph professionally.

His first assignment, for the World Council of Churches, was to report on starvation in Africa in 1973. All but one of the famine images in the exhibition were made during his second trip to the Sahel, in 1984 and 1985, during which he worked with a French medical organization.

These pictures, grim as they are, most effectively demonstrate Mr. Salgado's compassion, and his ability to recognize and celebrate humanity in the most unlikely situations -- an eloquent portrait of a woman whose eyes have been worn down by blowing sand and chronic infections, or a body being washed and prepared for burial.

He pares compositions down to bare essentials, and the pictures tend to focus on individuals rather than groups. Faceless, starving masses don't exist here; Mr. Salgado looks tragedy squarely in the eye, and forces his audience to do the same.

The famine pictures may be his most poignant, and perhaps even a bit theatrical, but the series on South American peasants shows Mr. Salgado delivering a political message with passionate understatement.

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