Whenever I see a photograph by Sebastião Salgado, I'm reminded of St. Lawrence the Deacon.
The Brazilian photographer is renowned for allowing the gaze of the world's poor to indict and remind the world's wealthy. Third-century martyr St. Lawrence is remembered as an early church accountant. He distributed alms to the poor, but always valued the poor more than the money. Salgado started off as an economist conducting his "almsgiving" through the World Bank, but then took up his camera to create a public, religious narrative of poor people across the world.
I saw my first Salgado photograph hanging in the cramped Cambridge apartment of a friend who was studying to be a Lutheran pastor. The photo was a devastating black and white taken in 1983 as part of Salgado's Terra series on the Landless Workers Movement in Sertão da Ceara, Brazil. In it a man, covered in coal dust, holds his naked year-old child while both stare confidently into the camera. They are framed by a dilapidated doorway, their heads haloed by peeling paint. On the wall behind hangs an oversized poster of an Anglo Jesus gazing on the two with infinite love—and perhaps passivity. It's classic Salgado: cutthroat, compassionate, complex.
In the early '70s, Salgado left the World Bank and wandered through Latin America collecting images for his first book, Other Americas. Later, he worked for 15 months with Doctors Without Borders, photographing in the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa. Next, in Workers, Salgado followed the effect that the transition from large-scale manual labor to mechanization had on people and their communities. His Exodus project depicted the newly developed migratory class of displaced persons and refugees. Salgado traces the human face, the imago dei, against the background of time, livelihood, and continents.