A Photo Teacher |

Sebastião Salgado and Good Intentions

Posted in PHOT 267 by Paul Turounet on March 26, 2008


© Sebastião Salgado, from the series Other Americas – Otras Americas, 1977 – 1984 (left) and Sahel – The End of the Road, 1984 – 1985 (right)


Trained as an economist and after borrowing a camera from his wife while on a business trip for the International Coffee Organization, Sebastião Salgado shifted his career from trying to reveal his concerns for social change through economic reports to using photographs, becoming one of the most respected contemporary documentary photographers. Since borrowing that camera in 1971, Salgado has been documenting the human condition through extensive, multiyear projects that have become global in recent years. His work gained international attention while working as a freelance photographer on assignment for the New York Times Magazine with his photographs of the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagen in 1981.

Salgado’s documentary projects have included in-depth examinations of such topics as indigenous life in Latin America, published as Other Americas – Otras Americas in 1984; famine in the Sahel region of Africa while working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) published as Sahel: The End of the Road, originally in 1986 and most recently in 2004 ; a worldwide homage to manual labor published as Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age in 1993 ; and issues of global human migration with international refugees and immigrants published as Migrations: Humanity in Transition in 2000. Recently, he has been exploring issues of the environment with his eight-year project Genesis. Many of these photographs have been featured in such publications as the Guardian in the United Kingdom, Paris Match in France as well as Rolling Stone in the United States. His photographic efforts have earned him numerous honors including the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant in Humanistic Photography in 1982 and the Hasselblad Award in 1989.


With documentary photography the difference is that the photographer must have a big concern. You must have a big ideological affinity with the subject you will be shooting, because if you don’t, you cannot remain sincere and empathetic for long. You must strongly identify with the subject.

– Sebastião Salgado, from the essay Workers published in Witness In Our Time – Working Lives of Documentary Photographers



© Sebastião Salgado, from the series Workers, 1986 – 1992 (left) and Kuwait Epilogue, 1991 (right)


Salgado’s work received immense critical attention with the publication and a major exhibition entitled An Uncertain Grace. In 1991, he had two major exhibitions at both locations of the International Center of Photography in New York and was featured in New York Times Sunday Magazine article. As Salgado was being recognized as one the most important voices in documentary photography, writer and critic Ingrid Sischy wrote an extensive review, Good Intentions, of Salgado and the retrospective exhibition for the New Yorker magazine that raised issues about the nature of “concerned photography.” In the essay, Sischy questions whether Salgado’s photographs undermine rather than dignify his subjects and his intentions of social awareness and change as well as the as issues of curatorial practice in presenting documentary photography as art.


After reading Salgado’s thoughts and own words on documentary photography from the essay Workers in Witness In Our Time – Working Lives of Documentary Photographers, and Good Intentions by Ingrid Sischy.pdf, consider and respond to the following questions:

What are Salgado’s thoughts on documentary photography as well as what his intentions are and his role and responsibility as a photographer?

What issues does Sischy raise about Salgado, his work and documentary photography?

What are your thoughts on the issues raised by both Salgado and Sischy with particular attention on photographic intention, the role of documentary photography and the audience for such work?



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