Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Sebastião Salgado: Gold

"When I first reached Serra Pelada, I was left speechless. Before me, I saw a vast hole, perhaps 200 meters in diameter and almost as deep, teeming with tens of thousands of barely clothed men, roughly half of them carrying heavy sacks up broad wooden ladders, the others leaping down muddy slopes back into the cavernous maw." This is how Sebastião Salgado introduces his by now legendary tome GOLD. This is the apocalypse, was my first reaction to this in every sense of the word stunning pictures. I look at them and think: This is not real. But it is. All of it. And, as always when confronted with the truth, we (I do assume I am not the only one) can  hardly believe what our eyes are showing us. Or, differently put, what Sebastião Salgado has photographed.
Copyright@Sebastião Salgado / Taschen

In order to take these photographs, Salgado had to earn the trust of the people portrayed. "When I climbed down into the hole, no one spoke to me; some even purposely soiled my khaki outfit with mud. It quickly became clear to me that I was the target of a spontaneous protest against the powerful mining company." When subsequently he was led away by a policeman and later released, he was safe. "This run-in with the hated police would help me enormously in the weeks ahead."

The workers he met were very varied – some couldn't neither read nor write, others had been to university. They all lived in barracks, there were no women. Like everywhere, there were also homosexuals. And, needless to say, there were tensions but Salgado also observed tenderness. They were all slaves of their dreams. In his autobiography, he recounts a story that made him smile."You're lucky to live in Paris, Sebastião", said a though looking guy. "Should I find gold, it is my dream to go there and have silicon tits made, they're the best there."
Copyright@Sebastião Salgado / Taschen

It is necessary to take one's time in order to somewhat understand what we are looking at. "I soon learned that what at first glance looked like a disorderly movement of men was in fact a highly sophisticated system, in which every one of the more than 50,000 men working there knew the role he had chosen to play."

 But why would anybody do that? What drove men to abandon their families, leave their homes and take such risks? Needless to say, one can only guess. Mine is that they are primarily driven by hope (the greatest motivator of all) of a better life.

Discounting talent, patience, and courage, Alan Riding opines, what most distinguishes these photographs from earlier coverage of this mine was that they were in black and white. "Salgado's black-and.white photographs project an immediacy that makes them vividly contemporary. We know that the mine at Serra Pelada is now closed, yet the intense drama of the gold rush leaps out of these images. Somehow, in black and white, time has a way of standing still."
Copyright@Sebastião Salgado / Taschen

The Brazilian gold rush started in 1979 when gold was discovered in a stream, it was however hardly the first such fever to strike the Americas. "Landing on the Mexican coast in 1519, Hernán Cortés informed the Aztec emperor that his men suffered from an illness that only gold could cure. And the get-rich-quick stampede continued, reaching heights of madness in the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and Canada's Klondike scramble 50 years later."

What these photos (in fact, most of Salgados photos) show is the inexplicable. What I'm presented with makes me wonder and leaves me stunned. A beehive comes to mind. Rarely has it been more apparent to me that we are very strange creatures.

Sebastião Salgado
English, Deutsch, Français
Taschen, Cologne 2019

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