- A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado by Parvati Nair
Parvati Nair's study of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado takes a broad view of the latter's oeuvre, both within the tradition and practices of photography itself and in the larger context of modern photovisual production and its political and aesthetic possibilities. Given Salgado's position as the premier photojournalist of the moment, Nair's study goes a long way toward elaborating an interpretive framework through which to understand not only Salgado's photography but any photographic production of its sort: that is, any imagistic production that flows in wide distribution through the dominant circuits of the global public sphere. This work constitutes, to my knowledge, the first book-length study of the Brazilian documentarist's work, and as such it represents a significant contribution to Latin American scholarship on photography and beyond—to visual cultural studies writ large. The author effortlessly ranges across aesthetic theory, Latin American historiography, and postcolonial criticism, as well as theories of photography, in addressing her subject.
Nair's intervention turns on thinking about photography at the crossroads of aesthetics and commodity culture. As such, Nair considers Salgado's most significant series in their own right while framing them within a theoretical corpus that includes Kant, Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, Tagg, and Solomon-Godeau, and , that meaningfully articulating Salgado's work within larger debates on aesthetic and visual production.
The study is not without flaws, however. At times the text shifts from its erudite survey of critical literature on photography and how we might understand Salgado's images in that context to an impassioned if learned apologia for Salgado's admittedly troubling mobilization of images of poverty and marginalization as a cornerstone of his practice. Nair advances a notion of Salgado's photos as a sort of activism through aesthetics, and her argument is compelling in arguing for how formal choices mobilize consciousness in viewers of Salgado's work. But Nair's investment in defending Salgado's images from their detractors seems grounded in a nostalgia for the grand gesture of photography as art that would belie and undo the image-saturated and decidedly non-auratic (to invoke Benjamin's term for signaling the uniqueness of an artwork) contemporary moment in which Salgado's work appears. Ultimately the author gives the impression that the most problematic claims that could be made about Salgado's work—the exploitation of the poor for the sake of aestheticization and the normalization and [End Page 410] exoticization of the conditions of global capital through their commodification, for examples—must be denied in order to understand the public good and political interventions that can be imagined to flow from these same images. But is it necessary to recur to mutual exclusivity to imagine that the best of these very good intentions can coexist with more questionable results? Perhaps, after all, it is precisely the cohabitation of such—on the surface at least—contradictory objectives that makes Salgado's work so fascinating.
If this book has a weakness, it is not an unwillingness to consider criticism of Salgado's work, which Nair expertly does, but rather its reticence to synthesize the negative criticisms with the much more affirmative ones that Nair clearly favors. Understanding the interplay of these two perspectives would seem to offer the most illuminating path into the light and shadow of Salgado's photography. The Brazilian critic Antonio Candido expressed this notion most eloquently: "Quem quiser ver em profundidade, tem de aceitar o contraditório."