Art Paper


This research essay is on Contemporary Art Photography. It is about the art work of Sebastião Salgado



Introduction. 2

Overview of Sebastião Salgado’s photography. 2

Salgado’s activism through photography. 3

Understanding contemporary social issues through Salgado’s photography. 3

Salgado’s contribution to contemporary art photography. 4

Conclusion. 5

References. 7


Photography is a powerful tool for documenting the fears, challenges, and hopes of humanity. Through transformative images, a photographer can communicate powerful message to a community and indeed the entire world (Wolford, 2011). Discourse on contemporary photography contains a lot of information on photographers who operate in the realm of the strand of contemporary art photography and have succeeded in triggering heated debates on the way humankind perceives life today (Wolford, 2011). They have also enabled many people appreciate the beauty of human life. One of these photographers is Sebastião Salgado. This economist-turned-artist is famous for travelling around the world on a mission to take photographs that tell the story of mankind. Salgado’s photos about the plight of laborers tell a story of a world in transition. They reveal insightful information about the plight of casual laborers who have to work in increasingly dangerous conditions to support the contemporary rise in consumption. The aim of this paper is to discuss Sebastião Salgado’s work and how it has contributed to contemporary art photography.


Overview of Sebastião Salgado’s photography

Sebastião Salgado started his photography practice while working with the World Bank and the International Coffee Organization. While working with these organizations, Salgado was able to travel to different countries in Africa. The people he photographed gave him a lot of inspiration to continue with his work as a photographer. Eventually, he quit his job in finance and ventured into travelling and photographing on a full-time basis. By directing all his efforts to photography, he was able to travel to other parts of the world. Salgado’s work is outstanding because of the way in which it highlights the myriad of issues that the world confronts today, including human conditions, plight of workers, and climate change (Sassen, 2011). His objective is to use photography as a vehicle for creating awareness as well as movements for action.

Salgado has made numerous efforts to create platforms for his photography to be accessible to the world. Some of the agencies he has worked with include Magnum Photos, Gamma Photography Agency, and Amazonas Images. He also produced two books while working with Doctors Without Borders. He has also authored other books during his travel to different parts of the world. Perhaps the most renowned project for Salgado is “Migrations and Portraits of Children of the Migration. Through this work, Salgado has managed to motivate educational programs and photography exhibitions in institutions and community centers around the world. His focus on environmental and humanitarian issues has won him recognition by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) through appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador. He has also received a number of Honorary Doctorates from several higher learning institutions. Today, Salgado continues to travel around the world on photographic expeditions.

A major global project that Salgado has undertaken in recent times is called “Workers”. The objective of this project is to present an imagery of hard work among men and women in different parts of the world. For purposes of analysis, Salgado divided the project into six categories: Food, Mining, Agriculture, Construction, Oil, and Industry. The photographs present the realities of the day-to-day lives of workers in different contexts, including fishing in Italy, rolling cigars in Cuba, and picking tea on Malawian tea plantations. This project stands out because of how it addresses concerns about working conditions of people throughout the world. Today, this project continues to portray Salgado as an activist-artist.

Salgado’s activism through photography

In the epic “Workers” project, Salgado emerges not just as an artist but also as an activist. His main concern is that despite the onset of globalization, outdated, centuries-old, methods of production are yet to be changed, particularly in developing countries. In one of the most popular photos, Salgado shows a group of coal miners working under deplorable conditions in India. In another photo, he shows some Brazilians working in a cocoa plantation. Moreover, he paints a clear picture of workers who continue to produce things that they cannot afford. This means that they are working simply to support rising consumption in other parts of the world, mostly in advanced societies.

The photographs tell a moving tale of how inequality continues to grow in the contemporary world. From the photographs displayed as part of the Workers project, it is evident that the contemporary dynamism of global markets operates to the detriment of poor countries. The most important thing for Salgado is not for people to give out material things after visiting his exhibitions. Rather, what matters is for people to contribute to the discussion on the need to change the way workers in the developing world undertake production processes.

Understanding contemporary social issues through Salgado’s photography

Many scholars have sought to establish a link between Salgado’s photography and the human understanding of contemporary social issues (Gold, 2011; Costa, 2003; Stallabrass, 2007). According to Gold (2011), Salgado has contributed immensely to the notion of visual sociology through his art work and photography. This is demonstrated by the fact that he was awarded the American Sociological Association Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues in 2010. This award threw Salgado into the limelight as far as the sociological discourse is concerned. Many sociologists renewed their interest in his work and embarked on efforts to subject it to critical review and analysis.


During the early 20th century, it was common for scholarly articles that addressed social issues to use photographs as illustrations. However, with time, the sociological discourse switched from social reform efforts to scientific investigation. This led to a decrease in the number of  photographs appearing in sociological journals. Nevertheless, during the 1970s, sociologists resorted to the use of visual aids as a method of teaching. This resurgence in the use of photographs coincided with Salgado’s rise as an activist-photographer. Many of his photos were used to highlight different social problems being encountered by the contemporary society. The publication of these photos raised Salgado’s profile as a world-renowned photographer and a visionary activist.

In Latin America, Salgado’s work is of great significance, not just because he hails from there, but also because of the clarity with which he addresses the region’s social problems. He identifies Latin America as his “touchstone”, acknowledging that he comes from a continent with very strong social problems (Mraz, 2010). Inevitably, most of his photographs reflect the sheer depth of these social challenges.

Costa (2003) uses the term “beautiful misery” in reference to Salgado’s photographs. The impression created in the use of this term is that the photographs depict the misery of humankind in a somewhat “beautiful” way. In other words, the beauty of the photographs as a work of art is undisputable even though they seem to be telling a very painful truth, one that many people would rather not confront (Costa, 2003).

According to Costa (2003), Salgado’s work achieves the goal of realism by portraying the real horrors of poor working conditions while at the same time domesticating these horrors through a certain “beautification”. This attribute has ignited a lively debate among artists, scholars, and commentators alike around the globe. Most of them view Salgado’s work as a depiction of an ideological stance as opposed to a political one. Salgado seems to support the view that humankind should look at the primacy of actions instead of the processes through which these actions are undertaken. In Salgado’s view, this is the best way of addressing the numerous social, economic, and environmental problems that the world confronts today. This explains why he is opposed to tokenism and development aid. For him it is more important for all people to open up to each other and engage in a discussion on how to change the processes of production.

Salgado’s contribution to contemporary art photography

A new strand of photography has emerged in recent times by the name “contemporary art photography”. Sebastião Salgado is one of the legendary photographers who have made immense contributions to this strand of photography. In this art form, people are presented in uniform series, in most cases one person per photograph. The person’s image is often placed at the centre of the picture while the individual gazes into the camera head-on.

In the contemporary art photography, the photographer presents the image in a straightforward manner, without much intervention. Most of the pictorial elements present in the photograph are left intact, thereby creating room for variation from one picture to the other as part of one artist’s collection. In this art form, youths tend to be disproportionately represented. Some photographers choose to include short captions identifying the subjects and their location. In some cases, the photographs may contain text illustrating the statements they may have made during the photo session. Although Salgado’s work does not fit perfectly into this description of contemporary art photography, many similarities are discernible in terms of thematic conceptualization.

Rather than fit perfectly into the prototype of contemporary art photography, Sebastião Salgado chooses to explore wider through what Stallabrass (2007) refers to as fine art photojournalism. The characteristics of this form of art are best depicted in a photograph of Serra Pelada open-cast gold mine in Brazil. This black-and-white photograph shows thousands of workers working in a vast pit. One would expect such a mining activity to be undertaken using trucks and mechanical diggers but none of these are visible in the photograph. Workers are simply digging the ground with shovels before loading the content into sacks and hauling them upwards through mud slopes and ladders (Stallabrass, 2007). The authorities stand at the top of the pit waiting to pay them some twenty cents for every thirty-to-sixty-kilogram sack that they deliver (Stallabrass, 2007).

Salgado uses the Serra Pelada photograph to create awareness regarding the broken dreams of thousands of Brazilians who still hope to become rich one day by working in deplorable conditions in vast gold mines. The imagery of this photograph is so vivid that it resembles a scene from a mammoth engineering project of the early nineteenth century. One is tempted to think that this photograph belongs to a distant past only that the date of “1986” happens to be inscribed on it.

This photograph demonstrates the powerful imagery of contemporary art photography. Salgado has produced many such photographs, some of which have been published in books and catalogues. Many people who see these photographs become astonished that such a thing could be happening in the contemporary world. In the context of the Latin American culture, they tell the story of the centuries-old struggle for gold in which most of the population feels obliged to engage. They also represent an image of the historical sacrifices that the people of Latin America have made in the violent quest for gold.

Salgado’s work presents contemporary scenes that contradict the efforts that are purportedly being made today to perfect the ideals of the neoliberal state. The work also seems to reinforce the notion that humanity has reached the point at which no one should expect anything better. This pessimistic view creates the impression that all the big questions that humankind has had to grapple with have been settled and that the world cannot get any better.

Salgado’s pictures are widely known in the realm of fine art but not much is known about them in the mass media. According to Rudel (2011), this is because illustrated magazines are no longer in vogue. Rudel (2011) adds that magazines and newspapers have continued to face stiff competition from television in recent decades. However, Gold (2011) disputes the notion that the retreat from classical un-manipulated image-making efforts has occurred because of technological change. According to Gold (2011), the real reason for this retreat, is that serious documentary photography and photojournalism is simply not suited to the contemporary neoliberal environment.

According to Walker (2003), Salgado’s work has led to resurgence in the profiles of major art galleries. For example, the Hayward Gallery exhibition has been attracting many visitors with a strong interest in his work. During the wartime and pre-war periods, the gallery had been attracting huge crowds when its members produced pictures with extraordinary aesthetic and political significance. However, in the post-war period, the number of such images dropped drastically. Nevertheless, with the emergence of fine art photojournalism, Salgado’s work is currently viewed in the context of a peculiar development. Its strong formal qualities are being appreciated while its concentration on graphic, un-manipulated, black-and-white qualities continue to add to this peculiarity (Walker, 2003). However, these features do not fall into the realm of the broad movement that encompasses George Rodger, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Walker, 2003). Instead, Salgado chose to make his work look deliberately backward as a creative way of portraying his individual artistic style.


In conclusion, Sebastião Salgado has contributed immensely to contemporary art photography. He has succeeded in his efforts to promote his profile as an activist-artist. Salgado’s photographs continue to tell a moving story of the outdated methods production that the workers from the developing world continue to support rising consumption in the developed world. His highly successful photography projects demonstrate how artists can use their professional abilities and creative abilities to encourage people to participate in the debate on environmental and humanitarian issues. Salgado’s work also provides crucial insights for emerging trends in fine art photojournalism.


Costa, F. (2003). Beautiful Misery: The Travels of Sebastião Salgado–An Interview with Julio Ramos. Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies: Travesia, 12(2), 215-227.

Gold, S. (2011). Sebastião Salgado and Visual Sociology. Sociological Forum, 26(2), 418–423.

Mraz, J. (2010). Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America. Third Text, 16(1), 15-30.

Rudel, T. (2011). Images, Ideology, and Praxis in the Environmental Movement: Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis Project. Sociological Forum, 26(2), 431–437.

Sassen, S. (2011). Black and White Photography as Theorizing: Seeing What the Eye Cannot See. Sociological Forum, 26(2), 438–443.

Stallabrass, J. (2007). What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography. 122, 71-90.

Walker, J. (2003). Art and celebrity. Washington, DC: Pluto Press.

Wolford, W. (2011). Making a Difference: Sebastião Salgado and the Social Life of Mobilization. Sociological Forum, 26(2), 444–450.

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