Through a Lens, Darkly

Sebasti?o Salgado?s haunting vision of humanity in motion

| July/August 2000

The images on these pages are from Migrations: Humanity in Transition(Aperture, 2000), a sad and beautiful book by the photographer Sebasti?o Salgado. For much of the 1990s, Salgado wandered through 40 countries to create this visual record of what he calls 'a global convulsion entirely of our own making.' Wherever he went, he found people driven from their homes by famine and war, or lured away in the quest to escape poverty. Many were risking their lives to reach wealthier lands, sneaking over borders or plying dangerous waters in crowded boats. In central Africa and the Balkans, countless refugees were simply trying to stay a day's walk ahead of ethnic slaughter. Vast numbers were destined for the world's new megaslums in Asia and Latin America, swelling yearly by the millions.

Salgado sees his own life as mirroring humanity's 'move into a denser urban world.' Born on a farm in rural Brazil, he studied economics in S?o Paulo before he and his wife left for Europe in 1969. As one of the era's great roving photographers, he is also the perfect example of the ultramobile modern nomad, but seeing so much brutal reality can take its toll. 'What I learned about human nature and the world we live in made me deeply apprehensive about the future,' he writes of his latest project, and 'left me wondering whether humans will ever tame their darkest instincts.'

Salgado's pessimism is somehow countered by the beauty of his photos. As such, they embody the eternal riddle of human nature, with its competing affinities for atrocity and grace. 'We hold the key to humanity's future, but for that we must understand the present,' he concludes. 'We cannot afford to look away.'

--Jeremiah Creedon