2001 MMLA
Globalization and the Image

Karl Erik Schollhammer
Pontificia Universidade Catolica




Do not cite without permission of the author.


Sebastiao Salgado, the most renowned Brazilian photographer nowadays, develops in projects such as Outras Americas, Terra e Exodos, a photography committed to a new testimonial condition in the globalized world. It is easy to recognise the portraits by Salgado, profoundly disquieting, by the looks directed right at the lens of the photographer, the observed silently accusing his observer. We feel that Salgado, nevertheless, seeks to create a link of empathy with those represented, at the same time as demonstrating an acute sensitivity for the guilt contained in his own observation. It is as if the exposure of the poverty adversely affected his own reality. It is not possible to know what represents the unique experience of each one of these people, portrayed by the travelling photographer, but the affective contact created by face and direct look freeze a privileged moment of ethical provocation. The exotic is found here, in the centre of the incommunicable experience of suffering and dignity, of perseverance in survival and of the presence of the inhuman in the life portrayed that is revealed in Salgado's photos as silence, the sign of something unutterable and non-communicable.


It is dark disaster that brings the light (Blanchot)

Sebastiao Salgado, the most renowned Brazilian photographer nowadays, develops in projects, such as Other Americas (1999), Workers (1997) Land (1997) and Exodus (2000), photography committed to a new testimonial condition in the globalized world.

The Exodus project is the most ambitious of Salgado's works. As a selection from among more than 80,000 photos taken over the last decade, it represents a kind of resume of his career as a documental photographer. The book has four separate parts - Emigration and refugees, The African tragedy, Latin America: the rural exodus and the urban disorder and Asia, the new urban face of the world - all of them with their own intrinsic logic and narrative. The report on the emigrants and refugees exposes the positive side of the fight for a better life in another part of the world; the second, the exasperating and tragic consequences of the African civil wars; the third recovers elements from Other Americas and Land in a nostalgic and very personal narrative of the Latin American destiny; and the fourth and final part in a more conventional image of reality of inhuman overpopulation of the Asiatic megacities.

This impressive multiplicity in Salgado's Exodus project contains an enormous variety of themes and documentary fact with an undeniable historical value as documentary testimony. There are great differences between the four sections, and a closer study would be needed to approach the complex levels of the themes. Anyway, we always find his very personal and critical fingerprint in the will to denounce and mobilize and in the sensitivity towards the emotional dimension of the scenario.

It is easy to recognize the portraits by Salgado, profoundly disquieting, by the looks directed right at the lens of the photographer (Slide 1), the observed silently accusing his observer. We feel that Salgado, nevertheless, seeks to create a link of empathy with those represented, at the same time as demonstrating an acute sensitivity for the guilt contained in his own observation. As Blanchot1 has observed, responsibility is an innocent guilt, and exposing himself and his camera eye to this guilt, Salgado projects it as responsibility of those who view his photos. We are necessarily involved by the subject, perhaps even fascinated by it, but at the same time subjected to a relation of bad consciousness in which objectivity and solidarity are confronted2. It is as if the exposure to the poverty adversely affected the artists and the viewer's own reality. It is not possible to know what represents the unique experience of each one of the people portrayed by the travelling photographer, but the affective contact created by face and direct look freeze a privileged moment of ethical provocation. The exotic is found here, in the center of the incommunicable experience of suffering and dignity, of perseverance in survival and of the presence of the inhuman in the life portrayed, revealed in Salgado's photos as silence, the sign of something unutterable and non-communicable.

Instead of identifying the representation of the radically different and the "exterior", the exotic in Salgado's photos is the result of the recognition of an interior condition assumed as non-identity, like a blank space - the middle ground - from which the identity is suggested in the possibility of a political project of solidarity. Nonetheless, in his project, the photos themselves are intended to balance in a dangerous swing between two abysms of representation. On the one hand, banality of pornographic overexposure of the poverty is avoided, and, on the other, he resists the temptation of falling into the romantic exoticism of a supposed original identity in pre-modern cultures or in the simple life of poverty. The anthropological eye is no longer the privilege of the traveler who visits a strange world, guaranteed by his external position. It is characterized by the look that takes risks and exposes itself to what is defined as a stranger, foreigner and visitor. In his quest, he looks at himself, recognizing that the alterity of the exotic involves and, at the same time, represents, the collective possibility of an unconfessable community with that which threatens and escapes.

As spectators of Salgado's photos we are always facing not only an inconvenient problem, but also an extreme and singular human consequence at the edge of recognition. We know that these social and political problems really exist, but in Salgado's photos we are confronted with an element of irrecognition, a kind of unpleasant gap in our political knowledge, exposed as human suffering in its harsh materiality and as the silent testimony of an irrepresentable experience. There is no way we can possibly imagine what these people have been experiencing, no way we can place ourselves in their situation and no way we can recognize their actual experience. The images reveal this unpronounceable and inhuman secret belonging to the Other. If his photos did not go further than to the point of exposing this uncomfortable reality, Salgado would probably be just another press photographer with a fine instinct for the political drama and for the flagrancy of human despair. But, we actually find in Salgado's photos a search for something beyond the documentary fact, a transcendence in another dimension of hope, a universality in a quest for humanity and as a possible redemption beyond his apocalyptic vision of modernity. Sometimes it is just present as a discreet light shedding even desperate scenes in an emergency of dignity (Slide 2) and resistance. Sometimes it is constructed by visual rhetoric in his photos as an explicit interpretation of the representative circumstances in an explicit biblical or revolutionary reference (Slide 3). Or, rephrasing the problem: What is the actual aim of Salgado's artistic quest? Beyond misery, beyond the crude, cruel facts of history and beyond the factual event, he is, in his own words, looking for hope, dignity, resistance and humanity. This is the supposed transcendence that makes it possible to avoid the dangers and dead-ends of journalistic superexposure of reality. The question we might put critically is: what does he actually find? What do we find when in search of transcendent universality? We find nothing. What does it mean to find nothing? In this "nothing" something else becomes visible, in the place of hope, despair, instead of resistance, patience, and in the place of redemption, we perceive disaster, as defined by Blanchot, as an unrepresentable event, the contrary of the apocalypse because instead of the "end" it is what interrupts the narrative movement from beginning to end and therefore becomes impossible to narrate.

Blanchot's definition of disaster is enigmatic. It is an event that does not happen, but interrupts the narrative links in historical conscience and memory. The disaster is an event "to come", like a threat in the future, a premonition, and, at the same time, something terrible that happened in the past, a nightmare. Its temporality is this suspension between "not yet" and "already been". The emergence of disaster is the in-between time of Salgado's "hope", that gives his project an apocalyptic promise of redemption, and the silent forgetfulness3 of what could emerge as a consequence of the situations represented. It reminds us of the Freudian definition of trauma, when he analyzes the emotional problems in relation to trauma as the efforts of the psychic system to prepare itself retrospectively for a shock that has already occurred in the past in an attempt to reach it and dominate it. This is why representation of catastrophe can be seen as, at the same time, an effect of experience and as the possibility of experience. Representation of catastrophe and disaster is impossible. They are defined as limits to experience, but at the same time, representation is the only possibility to approach this experience.

We will come back to this point later, but just anticipate a conclusion saying that it might be the great quality of Salgado's artistic sensitivity, that he, in spite of his own intentions, on this point, reveals a modern condition of representation as the revelation of the poverty of communicative experience, to use Benjamin's terms, but this time with no promise of salvation.

The travelling observer

The first theme to be approached in Salgado's work is how it testifies to a contemporary relationship between observer and observed that critically subverts the Cartesian relationship between subject and object within the contemporary premises of ethics. Salgado is an observing artist and, at the same time, a traveler searching for an original encounter with the "other". The representation of this privileged moment is always experienced as a dramatic relation - a contact zone of cultural translation - between identity and difference in which both observer and observed are subject to changes even if the observer has the power and the technological control over the encounter. In early modernity, the first view upon the other is attached to the original renaissance definition of the exotic, translating the Greek word "exoticos" that designates whatever comes from the outside, that is, objects and persons from the non-Greek world. It is what Niclas Luhmann (1991) called "the observer of first degree", characterized by the unidimensionality of vision upon the foreign, the outsider, the native or, simply, the external other. There is neither reflexivity nor empathy, and no real desire for knowledge beyond what is needed for control and hegemony. The object of vision is detached from the observer and no interpretative depth is found. In a second moment, terror and fear arrive as the first sign of a threat against the self-sufficient observing "self" by the presence of the other, and grace and compassion as a first weak sign of the possibility to recognize a sort of identity between self and other. For Luhman, these emotions indicate the emergence of an "observer of second degree", who is able to see himself seeing, and reflects upon his own observing situation as an influence upon the observed object and as influenced by it. This is the observer known from a Cartesian epistemology, and the traveler of the 18th and 19th centuries exploring the New World is the typical incarnation of this observer of the 2nd degree, as a viewer capable of adapting himself cognitively in relation to his perspective and to this object, and who sees himself being formed by the emotions and experiences of the observed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (1998) suggests that the difference between the observer of first and second degree is a result of a transformation that occurs historically within the expansive project of modernity in which the reflexive capacity represents the fulfillment of the project of enlightenment, but also as a critical discussion of its means, reaching its peak with Kant's critiques at the end of the 18th century. From High Modernism, in the beginning of the 20th century, the critical revision of scientific knowledge begins to predominate over confidence in the observed facts, leading to a general relativism and skepticism at the turn of the millennium towards the utopian possibilities of the great narratives of evolution, progress and liberation. From the beginning of modernity we can define "exoticism" as representation of the other, but in the globalized world the representation is qualified by the threat against the view of the observer by the subject of observation. There is no longer anything outside the scope of globalized knowledge, but the exotic then appears as a hybrid presence in the heart of recognizable experience. In this reversion, the exoticism is reflected as the sensitive register by the traveler/observer of the impossibility to support the look of the "other". We are not only talking about the other as a curious bystander who looks at one, but as scenery that imposes itself as an insupportable presence of everything that offends and assault one's vision and oblige the travelling observer to look away and avoid the visual presence of otherness in a reality recognized as the absolute limit of his vision.

Within globalized visuality, where everything is virtually exposed, and nothing really "new" or unexpected is introduced, otherness reappears as present, not as a cultural alternative or a utopian promise. On the contrary, the travelling observer is exposed to the vision of the other; he is himself an object of curiosity, of envy, strangeness and hate (Slide 4). In this way, the experience of the exotic appears embodied in emotions provoked by blind misery, chronic disease, exclusion (social, religious, cultural etc.) and is manifested as eyes with no hope and as a scene of obtuse affliction and anguish. Obviously, we are not talking of a radically new observing position, an observer of the 3rd degree, but as an inevitable dramatic extreme of the reflexive condition of observation: to find yourself under the mortifying eye of the "other" overexposing what you are really looking at. This is probably what happens to us most frequently, when we look at Salgado's photos. We recognize the social and geo-political content of his object, but, at the same time, it is overthrown by the rough materiality and sensitivity of the living experience. The artistic project of Salgado is to enforce this reversion and to impose it on his viewer's attention: We are not permitted to look away. In the words of Blanchot, this situation defines a different ethical ground for identity: "In the relation of the self (the same) to the Other, the Other is distant, he is a stranger; but if I reverse this relation, the Other relates to me as if I were the Other and thus causes me to take leave of my identity. Pressing until he crushes me, he withdraws me, by the pressure of the very near, from the privilege of the first person. Thus, when I am wrested from myself, there remains passivity bereft of self (sheer alterity, the other without unity). There remains the unsubjected, or the patient."(1994:p.18) Instead of a mobilizing solidarity and identity, Blanchot describes the emerging common ground as a consequence of the described reversion as the neutrality of "nobody", as a subjectivity without subject, as an existence without being in a space without place (exile) and in a time without present. Instead of identity between the self and the other, Blanchot denounces a loss of identity in a paralyzing relation to disaster, where disaster is understood as something which cannot be accessed by subjectivity, not realized by cognition and not represented by language.

The paradoxes of testimony and engaged art

The work of the Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado is meant to be a provocation. Its artistic approach is engaged, its object is subalternity and its purpose is to expose a reality of exclusion from an alternative point of view. We can discuss Salgado's work from its own premises as a courageous reformulation of the principles of engaged art, and in this perspective there is initially no doubt about its excellence and international recognition. Within this perspective, it might be interesting to examine some of the rhetorical issues that Salgado puts into practice, seeking solidarity with citations to heroic hagiography. But we can also discuss it from another perspective, attempting to question what the artistic construction of its photographic object signifies in relation to a discussion of the representative conditions in a globalized reality. First of all, what has united the themes in Salgado's photography since he started as a professional in 1973 on trip to Africa is a concern for the groups excluded from society.

In Other Americas, his focus was directed towards authentic people and traditions on the Latin American continent and understood as part of their resistance and survival under the threat of a unified, global, capitalistic and consumer society. In Workers we saw a global mapping of a singular relation of exploitation in a kind of trans-historical condition of the working man that denounced a continuous alienation of the main ground for human dignity during 200 years of industrialization. And in Exodus the focus is on the victims of the many violent ways national, ethnic, religious and cultural identity is questioned in a globalized world.

Common throughout these projects is the artist's paradoxical approach. On the one hand, Salgado's photography incarnates the global viewpoint - whether it is from a European modernity, like in his nostalgic description of a vanishing authentic America, or from the structural point of view towards the relation between exploitation and the archaic inheritance of human labor. Or, finally, from the viewpoint of a globally informed spectator about international conflict zones in Exodus, on the one hand and on the other hand, his artistic intention to reverse the relation of the implicit political authority in the representation of the excluded and subaltern people, groups or individuals. As such the paradox is between the necessity to embody a globalized viewpoint equivalent to the hegemonic view of the international media, a technological equivalent to the "observer of first degree", with the purpose to expose the global condition of singular and local suffering, and the attempt to convert the "eye" of the singular "other" into a universal comment on the world situation, to make every unique story implicit in his photos a kind of general comment on human misery, which is equivalent to a radical exposure of the reflexive inversion of observation of the second degree. But the premises of this search are the existence of a kind of universal transcendence in the heart of social cultural specificity, which becomes the real aim of Salgado's artistic quest. In the project, Other Americas (1999), in which Salgado himself describes as the statement of the returning Latin American emigrant after a kind of voluntary exile in Europe and Africa, who returns to search for the lost cultural origins on several long travels lasting 7 years, and always privilege the focus on the "other" America, native Indian and magic, which contain the secret of its cultural unity. In the mountains of Peru and Ecuador (Slide 5), or in the Yanomami territory in the Amazon forest (Slide 6), he finds what he calls "the most concrete of the irreality of this Latin America, so mysterious and suffering, so heroic and noble."(1999:p.13) In this statement we are not far from the writings of the Latin American modernists of the forties, like Alejo Carpentier, and their ideas about a trans-historical, a real magical dimension, intrinsic to genuine Latin American culture. In Salgado's view, this dimension of authentic transcendence is the counterweight to the dangers in documentary press photography, or, as Alan Riding explains in the preface to the same book, when he assures that "Salgado doesn't offer a catalogue of human suffering because he captures the cultural and spiritual dimensions that make the life in the Other Americas tolerable. Salgado doesn't romanticize his portraits, does not highlight the folkloric exoticism of the Indian life that so strongly attracts the western tourists, but even then he can't hide his own nostalgia for the simplicity of rural life without dissimulation and after the profound mysticism that sustains it"(1999: p.9) There is no doubt that Riding's guarantee works both ways, showing the concerns of Salgado's project and their real risks. Salgado offers a way out of his paradoxical project, pointing back to romantic metaphysics of authenticity and longing as the possibility of avoiding the dead ends of documentary realism.

There is probably no doubt about the consequences for the artist who accepts this peculiar paradox as a condition of possibility for his work. He is burdened by the recognition of his own presence as a representative of a hostile and external reality - which is the way it is normally experienced by his "subjects" - as one of the external enemies, or even as a direct reason for their situation. Perhaps this explains Salgado's ascetic devotion to his work, his renunciation of the glories normally received by the well-known Magnum "artists", his avoidance of the commercialization of his work on the art market he denounces, and his lone exposure to the difficult and often dangerous situations during his travels in the field, portrays the photographer as a kind of post-modern beggar monk assuming the necessary sacrifice to be able to approach the people he wants to save, or in the case of the artist, the groups to whom he wants to offer a possibility of expression as their own legitimacy: "Even then, they accepted to be photographed because I think they wanted their suffering to be published. Whenever possible, I explained that it was my intention. Many just stood up in front of my camera, directed themselves to it as if it were a microphone."(2000:p.7) More than a critique of Salgado's intentions, which are probably very noble, the discussion is more interesting as a questioning of the relations between representation and identity in photography. From the point of view of the photographer, the problem is that he economically and technologically represents a global representative hegemony, but as a factual "testimony" he assumes another kind of responsibility and makes every effort to distinguish his own work from sensationalism of poverty and from the presence of the ordinary press. Many elements of documentary press photography will still be found in Salgado's work because these elements offer him the possibility of global mobility and freedom, but on the other hand, his designation to testify is paradoxically a designation to transgress the limits of his external and isolated position as a journalist, to be able to "talk the case" of the others, as it happens in his report on the landless workers (the "sem-terra") (Slide 7) in Brazil. To assume the position of the witness is to expose one's identity to influence, and, as Elie Wiesel said, to bear witness is to bear the solitude of responsibility, which means, on the other hand, to bear the responsibility of this solitude. Or, in other words, the witness is never neutral or objective, but always exposed to the consequences of his own presence. That's why the witness ends up being a witness to what is being expressed by means of his own presence. Levinas says that for the witness, even if he testifies that "I'm here in front of the other", his testimony becomes a vehicle, an occurrence, a reality, a position or a dimension beyond himself. From the point of view of the photographer's subjects, they become confronted by the peculiar consequences of being represented in their lack of expressivity, in their despair, affliction, suffering, grief, solitude, passivity and resignation. In some cases, Salgado's subjects do express themselves explicitly, exposing an ideological content, like in the case of the Brazilian "Sem Terras" (Slide 8) - in others they are expressed implicitly by the focus upon their inexpressivity. They are overdetermined as a victimized group with a specific external identity, but without any expressive content.

Representation and subalternativity

It might be relevant to discuss the problem of cultural and social identity in relation to this problem. Within the analysis of the contemporary conditions of representation it is often alleged that nothing really escapes the hegemonic knowledge of the Western view. In this perspective, everything - gender, nation, ethnicity, religion and culture, is measured by the same global equalizing terms of identity in comparison to which singular and local societies are differentiated on a scale of authenticity, ranging from "original" to "hybrid" and "degenerated". Globalized culture gives rise to a kind of "weak universality", an identity which is imposed upon us - often undesired and alienated - with no transcendence or utopian promise compared to which singular and local identities seem strong and consistent. In these terms the "weak" global identity is representable as the "same" and the recognizable, when the singular cultural forms are affirmative to this globality as strong exceptions, exotic and almost indescribable in their unique singularity. The strength of identity is here on the side of the secret, allied to enigma and difference, and, from the point of view of Western globality, it is an object of desire, expressing a nostalgic feeling of loss, typical of modernity, within the experience of increasing sameness. None of this is novelty, but what I want to emphasize is that in the triad of knowledge, representation and identity, identity is not necessarily on the side of representability, even if it seems so when we refer, for instance, to national icons, such as banners, songs, symbols etc. Strong identity in a globalized world is only representable as a reflex of secrecy and silence; and at the limit of identity we can only recognize absence of rationality, pure emotion, madness or indescribable suffering. This is why identity seems to be polarized between a banalized representation - the national or cultural icons of a romantic belonging and identification, for instance, on the one hand - and, on the other, an artistic representation without any explicit or identifiable content that aims at a point of irrepresentability.

Within the romantic context, this point of irrepresentability existed as the negative sign for an emerging sublime transcendence in humanity or universality. Under the contemporary post-exotic condition this irrepresentability only points at an experience of culture as "trauma": as something inexpressible and unrecognizable in a reality where we cannot find any differentiating hope of another redeeming authenticity. On this point, the paradoxical relation in Salgado's work appears as the difficulty to differentiate his photos from the pornographic superexposure of the victims of catastrophe by the global press just contributing to the redundancy, insensitivity and banality towards human suffering. Instead Salgado appeals to a reversal of the representative relation. He searches for expressions of emotion and mute experience behind silence; he reveals anger, hope, despair, patience and denouncement in his portraits. In the context of subaltern studies the famous question by Spivak - Can the subaltern speak? - defines the subaltern by the impossibility of self-expression. The subaltern can't speak because they would not be subaltern if they could! In this problematic view, the subaltern are characterized in a relation of power as a negation of representative hegemony in an overdetermination of identity as the excluded other, which resists symbolization. No one can take the word of the subaltern and "talk for" them without reproducing the relation of power implicit in subalternity, but even then Salgado tries to find a way to express a meaning in silence.

It is important, as observed by John Beverly4, that the irrepresentability of the subaltern does not refer to an ontological category - a kind of Lacanian "reel" - but rather to a geographical, social and economic dimension, where the subaltern "designates a subordinated particularity, (...) in a world where power relations are spatialized" (1999:p.2). This is why subalternity is inscribed in a spatial reference, in a form for territoriality or institutional definition that makes them representable in spite of their lack of self-expression and their identity underdetermination. There is no doubt that Salgado's focus on the images of the Exodus, of the refugee camps and of the Diaspora represents contemporary metaphors which pictures the instability of a world in spatial and geographical redefinition, where globalization is seen as an effect of the breakdown of the last global walls and the last definite frontiers between east and west, between north and south - but they are also the images of a strong imaginary rescue of the possibility of redemption and of the "great return".

As a concluding remark, we might say that Salgado performs a very difficult balance between what Roland Barthes (1980) called the Doxa - the recognizable ideological content of criticism - and the Punctum - the exclusive effect reached by an affective quality that punctures the representational surface, leaving a kind of emotional wound in the spectator. In Barthes' study this Punctum reached the spectator by an autobiographical link to unconscious memory, but in Salgado's work it emerges as an effect of what we with Geoffrey Hartman5 could call a "secondary trauma" in the continuous exposure of death and suffering. The problem is if this initially emotionally mobilizing effect ends up causing insensitivity to the represented reality or even being an accomplice to an undesired effect of irreality, resulting from the routine exposure of these facts by the media.


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1Maurice Blanchot, The writing of disaster, Transl. By Ann Smock. Indiana UP. 1994. p.22

2 "There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community. This community may be the actual historical one in which they live, or another actual one, distant in time and place, or a quite imaginary one, consisting perhaps of a dozen heroes and heroines selected from history and fiction or both. The second way is to describe themselves as standing in an immediate in the sense that it does not derive from a relation between such a reality and their tribe, or their nation, or their imagined band of comrades. I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that the stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity." Richard Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity" in Post-Analytic Philosophy, ed. John Rajchman and Cornel West (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), 3

3 "The disaster is related to forgetfulness - forgetfulness without memory, the motionless retreat of what has not been treated - the immemorial, perhaps. To remember forgetfully: again, the outside."(Blanchot, 1994:p.3)

4 John Beverly, Subalternaty and Representation - Arguments in Cultural Theory. Durham and London: Duke UP. 1999.

5 Geoffrey Hartman. The Longest Shadow. In the aftermath of the Holocaust. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1994.