Through a Lens, Darkly

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

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.