The language I speak is light

Acceptance Speech by Sebastião Salgado


Sebastiao Salgado
© Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Dear friends, I feel immensely honoured to receive the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. In choosing me this year, you are recognising my work, my photographs, my engagements and my commitment to advancing pacifist ideas. I thank you… with emotion and with pride. Yes, I am proud that this peace prize should be given to me, a photographer who has carried out lengthy investigative projects over many decades; a photographer who has spent much of his life bearing witness to the suffering of our planet and of so many of its inhabitants who live in cruel and inhuman conditions; a photographer who has placed these same people at the heart of the broader photographic essay that he began fifty years ago and continues to write today.

These men, women and children are among humanity’s most needy. They comprise a vast army of migrants and exiles, of exploited workers and casualties of war and genocide. They include those who have fallen prey to famines, droughts, climate change and deforestation; those who are driven off their land by the avarice of powerful and greedy men, who are victims of mechanized farming, of the concentration of land ownership, of unplanned urbanisation, of a violent economic system controlled by the richest nations on earth.

I would like to share this prize with them. I don’t accept it for myself; I wish it for them; I wish it with them.

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I was born on a farm in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. When I was just five, my family moved to the small town of Aimorés. In my teens, I was sent to continue my studies in a nearby city, Vitória. And it was there that I met Lélia, my wife. From that moment, my life became our lives. From Vitória, we moved to the vast metropolis of São Paulo. Then, like so many of the migrants I would later meet, in 1969 Lélia and I became exiles from our country.

So perhaps this journey explains why I reach out to populations who have been displaced or threatened by wars, poverty or by savage modernisation. True, there is also an aesthetic dimension to my photography. That is a given. The language I speak is light.  But it is also the mission of shining light on injustice that has most guided my work as a social photographer.

In the early Seventies, I did a series of reportages on migrants in France. The Portuguese were escaping colonial wars and the Salazar dictatorship. They worked hard to build a future not only for themselves, but also for France because they contributed significantly to the country’s industrial and urban growth.

There were also North Africans. In northern France, I lived among miners, for the most part Moroccans, who were beginning to replace the Poles in the coal mines. They received me warmly and I still have strong memories of their friendship. It is with these Portuguese builders and these Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian immigrant workers, it is with them that I would like to share this prize.

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Around this same time, in 1973 and 1974, I photographed victims of a severe drought affecting a broad stretch of sub-Saharan Africa, from Niger to Ethiopia. What we didn’t understand at the time was that the famine was a consequence of global warming: farm land turned arid, lakes dried up, and the great River Niger, which for millennia had watered a vast region, with a drastically reduced flow. Then, as the countryside turned yellow, Touareg and Peul families abandoned their land for camps on the outside of the cities. It was terrible to see these proud nomads and farmers turned into refugees.

I believe that my images and those of other photographers helped to draw the world’s attention to this tragedy. Today, I’d like to pay homage to all these men, women and children who were forced by climate change to abandon their aged-old way of life to join the urban poor. It is with them that I would like to share this prize.

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A few years later, still in the mid-Seventies, I traveled through the war zones of Africa – across Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Rhodesia. Centuries of European colonialism were ending and, unavoidably, this was often accompanied by violence. It affected the Portuguese settlers in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau as well as the British in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe. I vividly recall the sadness of the Portuguese who were forced to leave the place that for generations they had called home. I photographed them when they returned to their so-called mother country and found that their savings in colonial money were worthless.

At this same time, as new independent countries emerged in Africa, the Cold War spilled over into the continent. Through the involvement of the apartheid rulers of South Africa, East-West rivalry for influence and power brought violence and misery to neighboring countries, none more than Angola and Namibia. Black populations were displaced en masse, fleeing from the war-torn countryside to city slums. I think back to all those who, no matter their race or nationality, suffered from the wars of decolonization and independence. It is with them that I’d like to share this prize.

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During our years in exile, I yearned to return to Latin America. Brazil was still off bounds for me because I risked prison and torture for my association with the dictatorship’s opponents. I also had no wish to settle again in Latin America. We were happy in France, we had one son, Juliano, and a second, Rodrigo, would soon follow. But I was eager to photograph other countries in Latin America, like Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala. And there I could record how peasants were flooding from the mountains and forests to cities. It was this social and cultural transformation that most interested me.

A white man photographing the continent’s original Amerindian inhabitants is naturally viewed with distrust. But by spending long stretches of quiet time with them, I ended up being accepted. These separate journeys often took three to four months, not only because I lacked the funds to make quick trips home, but also because it took time to win the confidence of those whose lives I was sharing. Theirs became my home. We talked incessantly. They wanted me to tell them stories, to explain my own life. And their gift to me was the images they offered of themselves.

It was not an easy time for me because, for months on end over six long years, I was separated from those I most loved - my beautiful wife Lélia, and our new son. But I felt the work was so important that I was willing to pay this price.

The people I photographed in the Andean countries and the Mexican sierras are no longer there. Their communities have become phantom villages, but these ancient peoples who received a young photographer warmly gave me the images for my first book, Other Americas. It is with them that I would like to share this prize.

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In the late Eighties, I embarked on a long-term project focusing on manual workers across the world. I noticed that a new economic order was bringing radical changes to methods of production and the social consequences of this were serious. For instance, a ton of iron ore bought from a poor country at a low price multiplies in value when it is transformed into steel in a wealthier country. Or take a peasant coffee-grower in Rwanda. He works his land from dawn to dusk under an unforgiving sun, he and his family live in a straw hut, no one can afford shoes, his children don’t go to school… and yet the value of his modest crop of coffee or tea is fixed in London, Paris or Chicago. This veritable looting of the raw materials of poor countries has allowed the West to accumulate enormous wealth and build powerful modern industries.

At the same time, through my photographs, I also wanted to capture the irreversible change being experienced by manual labour in advanced countries. Everything was happening so rapidly. The job market was being disrupted and unemployment was growing. When I photographed men working with blast furnaces, I learned that those without special expertise would soon lose their jobs to machines. I met French railway technicians going through a similar experience. They had long repaired giant locomotives, but the arrival of high speed electric trains now meant they would no longer be needed.

The photographs of these men and women appear in my book Workers. Those whose lives have been transformed by radical changes in the workplace, it is with them that I would like to share this prize.

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Between 1993 and 2000, I was again on the road, this time following the largest movement of people in the history of humanity. Just taking Brazil, India, China and Africa, more than one billion people migrated to urban areas. Every year, some 100 million people left their homes, villages or communities for cities, often fleeing desperate living conditions. For instance, in Brazil, in less thanfifty years, the population has gone from 90 percent rural to 90 percent urban.

For most, immigration is not a choice: it is an absolute necessity. And it is no less true today in regions of Africa, Asia, the Balkans and dramatically so in and around Syria. So long as dictators silence their populations, so long as civil wars rage, so long as rural poverty remains entrenched, the survival instinct will drive populations to seek security and better lives elsewhere. It is their history that I wanted to record – their history which is our history, the story of humanity.

In the forty countries I visited during thoseseven years, I felt the suffering and despair of so many people who were on the move. Even in those parts of Africa where colonial wars were over, as in northern Mozambique, the population was trapped between the new pro-Soviet regime and rebels known as Renamo, who were backed by South Africa. Males of all ages were drafted by force to join Renamo and in no time the very youngest had become child-soldiers. Thousands of others sought refuge in neighbouring Malawi.

Finally, in 1992, after the first peace agreements were signed in Paris, many refugees could return home. I remember watching long lines of them beside the Zambezi River. These returnees had spent several years living among shacks, roads and even hospitals. When they came home, many no longer wanted to live in the countryside, so they moved to cities that were ill-prepared to accommodate them.

It is with all the refugees in Mozambique and across the world, with those billion displaced people who are the subject of my book Exodus, with those who allowed me to photograph them so that their misfortune would become known to the world, with all these people I would like to share this prize.

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April 6, 1994, is a terrible date that the world should never forget. On that day, a missile shot down a plane coming into land in Kigali, Rwanda. On board were the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and their deaths set off an unimaginable fury of murder in which the majority Hutus declared war on the minority Tutsis. Over the next thirteen weeks, 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsis, were massacred. This genocide, among the worst recorded in all history, could have been stopped if Europe and the United Nations had intervened. The world knew what was happening, the most horrific images were broadcast on television for everyone to see, and yet nothing was done. I was there and I saw what was happening. I spent days and nights among the thousands of people fleeing this barbarity. They spoke to my camera lens as if it were a microphone.

After the massacres of Tutsis by Hutus, a Tutsi army entered Rwanda from Uganda and seized power, prompting an exodus of Hutus into Burundi, Tanzania and, most of all, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. A few months later, a mass of some 200,000 refugees were crossing Congo in the hope of reaching the region of Kisangani. It was a long and difficult march of 500 kilometres through thick jungle and only some 35,000 made it to their destination. And once there, a cholera epidemic took the lives of many more. I accompanied a team from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to one of the camps and, after it left, I stayed on in a little village outside the town of Kisangani.

It was horrifying. Refugees, exhausted, sick, starving; death all around me; the horrible sound of earth movers pushing bodies into common graves. All sense of humanity seemed to vanish. I saw a man carrying a small package in his arms while talking to another man. When he reached the grave, he simply tossed the dead body of his own baby into the hole and carried on talking to his companion. I could not stop taking photographs. I wanted the images to testify to the horrors taking place before my eyes which the international community had chosen to ignore. On the third day, the head of a primary school, with whom I was staying, told me to leave. I was white, he said, and “thugs want to kill you.” I left at three o’clock the next morning. The teacher had saved my life.

Those 35,000 Hutu survivors were forced by a local pro-Tutsi guerrilla to return the way they came. It was hell on earth. All 35,000 Hutus disappeared, murdered in the jungles of Congo. The photographs I took were hard to look at, yet they remain like scars on my brain. It is with those refugees, those dead and those survivors who will never forget what they lived through. With them too I wish to share this prize.

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After the unspeakable atrocities of Rwanda, I felt a powerful need to commune with people enjoying lives of purity – the purity of those who had escaped the reach of so-called civilization, the purity too of the environment, of flora and fauna, of trees and unspoiled lands. This led me to eight years of journeying, from 2004 to 2012, which took me from Antarctica to Arctic, Siberia, New Guinea, Sumatra, Ethiopia and Sudan to the Amazon, which is where I am now concentrating my work.

The Amazon is in the news today thanks to the destructive policies of Brazil’s new government and the fires destroying new stretches of jungle. Yet it is this same Amazon that accounts for a large share of the humidity distributed all over the world, for one-third of all sweet water and the largest concentration of bio-diversity on earth. The rain forest is also home to indigenous peoples, who are the true guardians of its welfare and survival. Today, they live in fear. Large agrobusiness corporations seize more and more land to grow soybeans, which are destined not for the local market since Brazilians do not consume the grain, but for cattle and pigs in Europe, Russia and China. And these powerful companies have bought off many politicians. So deforestation continues.

There is also a form of spiritual and cultural pollution brought by evangelical Christian sects. With the complicity of political forces, they are engaged in trying to “civilize” the Indians in the name of the Lord. The reality is that the survival of the Amazon’s Indians is threatened as never before… by the destruction of the forest, by the illegal seizure of tribal lands, by the brain-washing by religious sects and the invasion of Indian territory by illegal gold-miners. And to make things worse, Brazil’s new government has sharply cut the budgets of the National Indian Foundation and the Environmental Protection Institute.

All these acts of political and real violence have the Indians as their target. At the time of the discovery of Brazil in 1500, they were estimated tonumber four to five million in today’s Amazon territory. Now, they number310,000 people spread among 169 tribes, speaking some 130 languages. The decimation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, from Alaska to Argentina, represents one of the greatest demographic disasters in human history. And yet, according to the Indian Foundation, there are still 103 indigenous groups in the BrazilianAmazon that have never been contacted. They are the survivors from the pre-history of humanity.

During many trips in recent years, I have lived among a dozen different Amazonian tribes. And during these journeys I have enjoyed an extraordinary level of confidence and mutual respect, so, with these friends of the forest too, I would like to share this prize.

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Displaced peoples, refugees, deportations, expulsions from ancestral lands, the uprooting of entire societies – these are the dreadful signs of our times. My only hope is that, as individuals or nations, we can reflect on our present human condition, on the need for a deeper sense of responsibility, of order, of good conscience. Somehow we must find new means of coexistence.

I’d like to end by sharing my experience in 1994 on the border between Bosnia and Serbia where I came across a group of refugees living in railway wagons, adapted by Cap Anamur, a German NGO. In one sense, they were lucky because they had fled before their wives were raped or their husbands assassinated, before they had known the worst of that war. But for that reason, they had not been recognised as refugees. So there they were, trapped in their little camp, watching in despair as trains rolled by carrying fellow Bosniaks to the safety, comfort and human warmth of Germany.

That was when a terrible thought struck me. The violence tearing apart former Yugoslavia was identical to what I had seen in far-off corners of Africa. Yet I realized that even the people of a modern cultured country like former Yugoslavia could suddenly be transformed into executioners. It made me question everything I had read and learned… from Plato and Socrates to the Holy Scriptures. Deep down, could it be that our most natural state is not to “Love one Another’…. but to “Kill one Another”?

I wondered, I worried, I doubted and yet this doubt should not prevent us from hoping for something different. We cannot ignore what we are capable of doing to each other, because man is always a wolf to another man. Yet the future of humanity can only be in our hands. To build a different future, we must understand the present. My photographs show this present and, painful as it may be, we must not shy away from looking at them.

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Ladies and gentlemen, in honouring me with this prize, you have recognised the fruits of the journey of my life. But there, I must correct myself. The fruits of our journeys and our lives, those of Lélia and myself.

Lélia, my wife, the most beautiful woman any man could dream of meeting, kissing, marrying.

Everything I have just described today, everything I have done, was made possible by Lélia.

It was Lélia who first introduced me to photography.

Together, we lived difficult years of exile.

It is Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado who has designed our books, picking the cover, choosing the lay-out, selecting the photographs and the accompanying texts. Even now, she is at work on a new book about Amazonia.

It was Lélia who through her love saved my life when I returned from Rwanda, a broken man, haunted by the blood and death I had witnessed.

Together, as a devoted couple, we have formed a family, with two sons, Juliano and Rodrigo, and now two grandchildren.

We created our photographic agency, Amazonas images, now our studio. And it was through Lélia’s energy and determination that we created a wonderful reforestation project in my home town of Aimorés. In every sense, the Instituto Terra, as it is called, is our own Genesis.

Dear Lélia, this prize is as much yours as it is mine.