Apr 14, 2012

What can Sebastiao Salgado teach you about writing?

What is art for?
by Sean Gallup
A painter I greatly admire, Robert Hardgrave, said that he wouldn’t want to live in a world where art did not exist. Art may inevitably derive from intelligence. It probably is the highest expression of emotional intelligence. While I could be tragically wrong, I hope the Universe is peopled by an equal number of engineers and creative artists.

What makes a masterpiece?
The way I see it, an accomplished work of art is supposed to a) take you out of the moment and/or b) shock you into greater awareness of yourself and the world.

Photographer Sebastião Salgado (b. 1944, State of Minas Gerais, Brazil) is one of those rare human beings who can do both.

This commentary is going to be light on words and heavy on images, because there’s not much I can add to the often-terrible beauty Salgado captures with his lens.

So, what can Salgado’s approach to art teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

Part I
Understanding People

As a species, we are still bound to a single planet, and just look at the incredible diversity of cultures on Earth. In some European countries, it’s bad form to pen a note in red ink; in China, it’s a death threat. For the Spanish, it’s not unusual to go for lunch at four in the afternoon -- whereas 4 PM is dinnertime in Sweden. Black is the color of mourning in the West, while in many parts of the East they still cling to funerary white.

This Dinka man, photographed at the cattle camp of Kei in southern Sudan, 2006, covers himself in ash from a burnt cow patty. There’s nothing illogical about his behavior, nor is the ash decorative, as you might think. The ash helps keep harmful insects away.

(Have you ever been ‘stung’ by one of those huge flies that plague cattle? I have. It felt like a hot needle jabbing into my calf.)

Salgado does not shy away from difficult subjects: Famine, exploitation, despair. When he came back with brutally honest and terrifying pictures from the Sahel, he made a veteran photo editor cry. That series of soul-crushing images would eventually be published in book format as Sahel: The End of the Road.

Human suffering gets swept under the media rug every day. We in the western world have had it easy for the past 50 years or so. Comfortable lives can and do limit your perspective. The fact of the matter is, you and me have no idea what it’s like to see your neighbor’s house shelled or be driven from your ancestral home at gunpoint.
We can’t imagine what it’s like to go on a forced march across shifting dunes and be herded into a refugee camp.

You might tell me that the photographer’s gaze is privileged or exploitative. You’re right. But there’s no way around that. Someone has to speak for the voiceless. If money and privilege enable that, so be it. Money is not inherently evil: You can put it to good use. I believe Salgado is doing just that. I’m sure he would’ve been cosmically successful as a fashion photographer, but that was not his calling.

Fashion photography is about surface -- an almost delusional apologetic for transient beauty. The vampire camera of the fashion photographer feeds on young ladies & gentlemen. Fashion photography is intended to hide as much as it possibly can. Whenever it reveals anything, it is our misguided appetite for perfection. Is it any coincidence that Tarsem Singh’s Immortals plays like a fashion editor’s wet dream?

Salgado’s photography is gloriously anti-fashion. It is penetrating. It is about that vulnerable side of us that we so love to hide. Sartorial styles come and go, but emotion and truth, these things are forever.

Part II
Unveiling the World

 Salgado’s Genesis Project, a labor of love -- seven-plus years in the making, set to wrap up this year -- offers an in-depth look at the world we live in, and our place in the ecosphere.

I’ll just let the images speak for themselves.

The take-away

Good artists -- and writers are artists, not just marketers, salespeople or competent professionals -- work hard, put in as many hours as they have to.

Great artists embrace risk, suffering, and are more than willing to upset people. The ultimate question you can ask yourself as an artist might be: Is it enough for me to be good, or am I willing to pursue greatness?

It’s easier not to disturb the hornet’s nest. No-one will blame you for choosing safety and security over pain, misunderstanding and potential rejection. But then no-one will admire you either, because anyone can choose safety and security. That’s what people do.

This isn’t just me telling you ‘dare to be different.’ Easy for me to say; I don’t have to take on your burdens. I am neither arbiter nor guru; like you, I am an explorer. Sometimes I dare go farther and deeper than you do. Others, I look toward the horizon and there you are, achieving goals I am still gunning for. This to say that our paths often cross, and I have no magic compass to tell me which direction I should take.

We write about those who’ve found their strength and embraced their higher selves. We call them heroes, subversives and sometimes, yes, sometimes, we even call them heretics*, criminals and terrorists.
*Here’s a good example of modern-day heresy.

As Michael Moorcock once put it, if you’re not taking risks in your life you’re not taking any risks in your work, either.


The Photographer as Activist

Click here to see the video on YouTube.


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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