Don’t Miss: Sebastião Salgado at London’s Somerset House

The exhibition, which raises more questions than it answers, has rightfully been a hot ticket during its short run.

A family wrapped in blankets stands staring morosely in a desert
Refugees wait outside Korem camp. Ethiopia, 1984. © Sebastião Salgado

Launching a retrospective of Sebastião Salgado must be a daunting task. Salgado has a good claim to be the most famous living photographer; his style is instantly recognizable and endlessly imitated. With images captured in over 100 countries, his body of work documents some of humanity’s darkest stains: displacement, famine, conflict and environmental degradation. To do his work justice, one would need a space that matches the scale of a career that stretches over half a century and has reached every corner of the globe. The responsibility is huge.

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Those in London can find such an attempt at Somerset House, which celebrates Salgado’s career in an exhibition running through May 6. Salgado, who turned 80 this year, is the 17th recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award and the retrospective is displayed as part of a wider exhibition of the Sony Photography awards.

Salgado is an obvious choice. He would spend years on individual projects that covered a range of subjects: migration, urbanization and industrialization. Before he found his calling as a photographer, Salgado completed a PhD in economics. It was only after his frequent visits to Africa working for the International Coffee Organisation that he decided to quit economics and focus on photography full time, yet his interest in how the forces of geopolitics push against the workers of the world remained a consistent feature in his work.

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In the 1990s, Salgado stopped photographing for several years; decades of documenting hunger and violence took its toll on his body and mental health. “I lost my faith in our species,” he once said. “I didn’t think it was possible for us to live any longer.”

But Salgado later returned to photography, devoting his energies to documenting wildlife and the natural environment, including in his native Brazil. (In 1998, he and his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado founded Instituto Terra, a non-profit committed to environmental restoration in the Rio Doce basin.) His later work has none of the human suffering that characterizes so much of his career, but it shares the same visual language that makes him one of the most recognizable photographers alive: sharply contrasting black and white, strong lighting and deep tonalities. Throughout his long career, Salgado photographed the planet’s most vulnerable, be they people, animals or landscapes.

The range of Salgado’s projects is presented here in Somerset, although none are given the full attention they deserve. Only a small selection of images are presented out of the hundreds that could have been chosen. There isn’t a single weak image in the collection. It’s only when you take a step back that you consider what’s missing.

A firefighter stands under a flood of water in front of a raging inferno
The fight against burning oil wells, Kuwait oil fields, 1991. © Sebastião Salgado

The images themselves are iconic. The thousands of bodies climbing up and down ladders in a Brazilian gold mine; an explosion in an oil field in Kuwait; the scaly fingers of a Galápagos iguana—all share Salgado’s distinctive black-and-white visual style. There’s no clear flow between the rooms, although some of the images are paired deliberately to mirror their composition and contrast their subjects, like the landscape of the Benaco refugee camp in Tanzania above an image of abandoned babies on a tall roof in São Paolo, Brazil.

There are unavoidable ethical questions in photography, particularly when documenting suffering. In recent years, the role of the photojournalist going into foreign countries to photograph people in desperate situations has been scrutinized. So too has the idea that images of other people’s pain can be considered art. How should we respond to photographs of some of the most distressed people on earth hanging in frames in the East Wing of Somerset House?

Part of me praises the composition of an image showing Tigrayan refugees huddled under the shelter of a tree, and the technical expertise necessary to capture the sunlight falling gracefully through the leaves. Another part of me feels monstrous for even thinking about questions of aesthetics when looking at an image of refugees. There’s no doubt that Salgado deeply cares about the people he’s photographing. The question is whether his audience will.

A close up and detailed black and white photo of an alligator's foot
Marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). Galápagos, Ecuador, 2004. © Sebastião Salgado

Salgado once said, “I try with my pictures to raise a question, to provoke a debate, so that we can discuss problems together and come up with solutions.” (Many of his projects were in collaboration with NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, and some of the proceeds from exhibitions and book sales went back to those organizations.) One only hopes that audiences will look at the photographs on display not just as works of art but as calls to action, reflecting on how they relate to present-day challenges like the hunger crisis in East Africa, the war in Sudan and the plight of millions of refugees seeking safety all around the world today.

Though modest in size, the exhibition is a reminder why Salgado is one of the few living legends in photography. The exhibition has rightfully been a hot ticket during its short run. Hopefully, audiences will see the work not just as a cultural signifier but as a provocation to reflect on the inequality that still defines much of our world. Salgado wants his photographs to forge conversations that lead to solutions. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, when the old problems of war and hunger still remain and the new challenges of climate change are causing millions of people to suffer, those conversations are more necessary than ever.

The Sony World Photography Awards 2024 exhibition is at London’s Somerset House through May 6.

Don’t Miss: Sebastião Salgado at London’s Somerset House