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.
SALGADO SAYS HE is not a religious person and that "the language of photography is symbolic." His work, however, is deeply engaged in telling public religious stories. His current project (Genesis, begun in 2004) arose from Salgado's near-despair at the heartbreak of the human condition he's studied so intimately through his lens. In need of spiritual renewal, he sought nature's cure—back to God's primary text and first blessed: the natural world. Salgado is "seeking out places that are still as pristine as they were in primeval times, places that provide hope," according to The Guardian, where the project is being documented. He estimates Genesis will be completed in 2012. "We exploit the entire planet to live as isolated individuals," says Salgado. "It's very complicated to have hope, but there are spots of hope around the world."
Artistically, Salgado is steeped in the school of Brazilian Baroque, which as one art critic wrote, "is almost always religious in content, unashamedly theatrical, and resoundingly public." Like the "realism" of the sculpted Baroque saints—made to look as life-like as possible, down to real hair and glass eyes—Salgado allows the essential line of the human form to balance each piece.
Salgado's work is public photography, not private or personal. It intends to weave the subject, photographer, and viewer into a narrative relationship that is conflictual, complementary, and holy. Salgado's portraits require of us active memory. "Memory implies a certain act of redemption," writes cultural historian John Berger. It is the religious gaze and our lens of sacred memory that can prevent Salgado's work from becoming mere spectacle or devolving to "poverty pimping."
So what about St. Lawrence the Deacon? When the Roman prefect accused the church of hoarding wealth, demanding that Lawrence turn over the church's wealth to the war effort, Lawrence agreed that the church was indeed prosperous. "I will show you the valuable part," he said, "but give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory." Three days later Lawrence returned. "Where is the treasure?" the prefect demanded. Lawrence threw wide the doors of the hall and let them view the courtyard. In it he had gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned, and widowed persons and put them in rows. "These," said Lawrence, "are the treasure of the church." Lawrence's answer earned him a slow death by fire.
It is the same with the people—and now the natural world—that Salgado photographs. These are the treasure of the church.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.