Can taking a photograph be an act of peace?

Laudatory speech by Wim Wenders


Wim Wenders
© Anne Wilk

Can taking a photograph be an act of peace?
Can photography foster peace?
These questions are not as rhetorical as you might think.
After all, the act of taking a photograph is associated with ‘shooting’.
The expression ‘to shoot pictures' steers you in this direction,
as well as the somewhat more old-fashioned notion of the 'snapshot',
which involves not only a shot, but also a trap that snaps.
Those early Native Americans come to mind who sensed instinctively
that the white man was looking to ‘steal their soul’ with his camera.
Today we leave these hostile aspects of photography far behind us.
Sebastião Salgado does not shoot, he does not steal, he does not trap, on the contrary:
his images disarm, they create connection, closeness and empathy.
You have acknowledged this, dear ladies and gentlemen
on the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
And honouring Sebastião Salgado with this award not only lifts him,
but also his profession, his craft, his life's work
into a different light, that is, as the work of peace and as peace at work.

PEACE is indeed under scrutiny here today at this award ceremony.
And we shouldn’t deceive ourselves:
peace has become an extremely fragile commodity in our age.
‘Peace’ once had a wholly different significance, here at this very site, too,
socially, culturally, philosophically and in terms of civic spirit ...
Millions of people used to take to the streets for peace, they no longer do so,
even though the number of wars across the globe increases from year to year.
Today other things are more urgent to us and are now the order of the day.
Let’s face it! Peace is no longer an existential focal point in our lives
like it was back then, after World War II,
when the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade first came into being.
I went back and read speeches from that era,
and the very notion of the word ‘peace’ alone had such an impact then
that I physically felt:
this was the most important, the most longed-for thing of all.

Today, peace is still high on our list of New Year's wishes,
but in everyday life and in politics, it has mostly degenerated into a hollow sentiment.
Other conflicts and problems have pushed their way to the front,
such as the climate catastrophe that casts a shadow on any possible future on the planet,
such as the mass migrations and refugee movements
that have challenged our foundations here in Europe,
such as injustice, poverty, hunger and unemployment,
all of which are unravelling our social fabric.

Still, all of these current issues could also be seen
as the very requirements for peace, or better yet, as the conditions
that would need to be changed so that a great peace could reign.
But we never get around to actually acknowledging and honouring peace,
because we’re too busy dealing with the barriers standing in its way.
Too many obstacles are piling up...

Which finally brings me to our laureate.
A man who actually took the time to carry out precisely that foundational research
that would precede any sustainable peace.
Sebastião Salgado has taken an incredible number of photographs across the planet,
and it is impossible to do justice to the full extent of his oeuvre.
Still, I would like to highlight three particular works,
which foreshadowed the issues mentioned above
in a prophetic manner and pushed them to the limelight.
Salgado didn’t do so ‘en passant’, but rather – and this, for me, is of utmost importance –
by taking his time, that most precious of time, his life-time.

First, there is an almost ten-year mission in more than 30 countries
the result of which Salgado called “an archaeology of the industrial age”.
"ARBEITER" is the German title of this large collection of photographs,
"LA MAIN DE L'HOMME" the French one,
and it explores, in fact, manual labour: what human hands are able to do.
This volume is a large-scale anthology of physical labour,
and it portrays with a prophetic eye the end of a period in human history
that started with the Industrial Revolution
and only coming to an end now, in the 21st century.
It documents this era and shows us its final stage,
but with it also the end of an appreciation for manual work and for its dignity,
announcing how labour and the right to work are being devalued and disavowed,
and how the loss of work inevitably leads to inequality and thus to discord.

Another decade of his life Salgado devotes to the issue of migration,
long before it becomes an acute, tangible and politically relevant matter to us.
He takes photographs of people all over the world,
people who are forced by hunger, war or oppression,
to leave their homeland and embark on a journey into the unknown.
In this period, he photographs the first victims of global warming, the Tuareg,
at a moment when their lakes and rivers in the Sahel are running dry,
their trees and plants disappearing, their animals dying of thirst,
and thus their livelihoods and the means to feed themselves vanishing.

Here, too, Salgado is a visionary whose camera prophetically
draws our focus to the loss of even more foundations of peace:
the right to a livelihood and a roof over one’s head, on the one hand,
and the right to a homeland and the freedom to choose it, on the other.
EXODUS is the title of Salgado’s second seminal work,
one that drives our photographer and witness of the world to the brink of madness,
when he finds himself caught between the two fronts of the Rwandan genocide
and is believed to have gone missing for a long time.
He looks so deeply into the heart of darkness
that he loses faith in humanity.
It nearly breaks him entirely.
But he allows himself to be healed, with the help of the very same camera
that has witnessed the deepest of sufferings and the worst of horrors.

This healing process leads Salgado to the third huge theme
to which he devotes yet another decade of his life, our planet.
Yet he does not turn his attention to the destruction of nature,
but instead searches for its intactness,
in those places where the Earth is still the way it was upon creation, so to speak,
hence the biblical title, GENESIS.
Salgado finds places, and people, too, that have never been photographed before.
And you can’t just simply travel to these remote locations,
you have to walk for weeks through the wilderness
and go by boats or canoes.
He finds paradise, or at least he shows us that it still exists,
here on our blue planet,
including one location where a matriarchy is firmly in place
and functioning beautifully, for both women and men,
who appear satisfied in equal measure, which makes us realize
that we might have gotten a few things wrong.

With these three monumental monolithic works alone,
this man has shown us the fundamental conditions necessary for peace:
there can be no peace without social justice, without work,
there can be no peace without the acknowledgment of human dignity,
without ending the unnecessary statesof poverty and hunger, 
and there can be no peace
without respect for the beauty and sanctity of our Earth.
The first victims of any malicious and profit-driven destruction
are always the poorest of the poor.
That, too, Salgado demonstrates clearly,
and how, along with the planet, its water, animals, trees and vegetation,
human lives are also perishing.
“Subdue the Earth” is unfortunately still
the conventional translation of the bible, evidence of a conceit
that turned into arrogance and ultimately into recklessness.
A better translation of the Book of Genesis should have been, from the very beginning:
“I entrust you with the care of the Earth, you are responsible for it”.

I was fortunate enough to see the images
that would eventually comprise Salgado‘s monumental epic of the same name
beforehand, while he was still working on the prints,
and determining with his wife Lélia the selection and the sequence of photographs.
These photographs from GENESIS have since made their way around the world,
were shown in countless exhibitions,
sold as books, posters and postcards,
and some of them, including the iceberg that resembles a medieval castle,
and the penguins hurtling themselves delightfully into the ocean, to name just two,
have long since become visual icons of our era.

Or look at the paw of the iguana
that resembles the hand of a medieval knight in a metal glove!
It has most likely become the best-known image of a hand in the world.
I remember standing alone in front of this photo,
after Sebastião had told me the story
of how the shot of this animal-human-hand had come about.
And I remember the thought that crossed my mind at the time,
because it was new to me,
and it had emerged under the impressions and the weight
of all these glorious images of our glorious planet.
I had thought: It was only possible for one person to take all of these photos,
or, better said, to find them,
or, even better said, to receive them as a gift and pass them on to us,
because this person had earned the right to do so,
but maybe that’s also not the right way to say it,
maybe this was simply an act of grace.
Indeed, these photos are nothing less
than a most generous gesture from our Earth,
a lifting of its veil and a ‘revealing’ of itself.
And this was a ‘courtesy’ not just granted to anyone!
Letting us participate this way in the beauty and sublimity of the Earth,
was a privilege reserved for someone who has stared into its abyss first,
who has passed through hell and purgatory,
and who has seen firsthand the horrors of which humankind is capable.

Only someone who has suffered a lot with others,
someone who has gone to where it hurts,
to the powerless, the oppressed, the starving and the fleeing,
someone who has accompanied them, given them his time,
listened to them and thereby given them a voice, as their ambassador,
who has at times exalted them, but not so that their pain “looked more beautiful”,
- which is the absurd and nonsensical reproach one sometimes hears -
but instead as a way of paying respect to them
and granting them dignity and uniqueness, precisely in their suffering …
only such a person can open our eyes, too, and say:
“Look at everything that is still here,
that is still the way it was in the beginning.
Look at everything you can and must save
and all that is not yet lost forever”.
We can trust the eye of such a person,
because he has received the things he has seen as a form of healing,
eye-to-eye with people who have never seen a camera,
eye-to-eye with animals, trees, primeval forests, clouds and light,
eye-to-eye with creation.

Taking photographs is never merely an act of looking for Sebastião Salgado,
it is also an act of sharing and passing on,
always driven by the desire to listen, to accompany, to bear witness and be involved.
And we should never take this for granted!

Allow me to return once more to the nature of photography itself.
When photographers photograph something
– a lovely old German verb for that is ‘aufnehmen’, which means to ‘take up’ –
they ‘take up a position’, whether they like it or not,
with regard to what is being photographed.
They thereby reveal what they are doing with the thing they are ‘taking up’.
Are they placing it in a good light so we can see it better,
to make it more accessible to others?
Are they showing appreciation and admiration for it, or rather disapproval, even disdain?
Do they drop it or put it aside carelessly?
All of this is decided in the very moment of ‘taking up’, or taking the shot.

This may not seem so important,
when you’re taking family photos, or travel pictures, or snapshots.
But when a photographer has dying men, women and children in front of the camera,
or starving people, or people fleeing for their lives,
when something fundamentally existential is taking place in front of your lens,
what happens in this moment of the shot, of ‘taking up’?
What responsibilities lie with the photographer with regard to ‘the other’,
and how exactly is this ‘other’ being ‘taken up’ or received?

Anyone who has ever been in this situation knows:
here, each time, a decision is made in a fraction of a second,
as to whether this will be an act of empathy or an act of distancing.
These are the two options, there are no others.
Is the photographer on the side of the ‘other’, the person suffering, starving, dying,
do you let that person ‘get to you’,
or do you ‘keep out’?

This is something we can discern in each and every photograph,
something that emerges like a watermark pressed into the image.
Photography has indeed become a complex language,
but its messages are easy to read, and pretty unambiguous,
if you take the time to decipher them.

You can distinguish this essential feature with your naked eye alone
and determine whether an image ‘has an impact’
because it wants to make a good impression for itself,
wants to win your favour, sell itself, is intoxicated, so to speak, by itself,
or whether it impresses us by elevating ‘the other’,
paying respect to that other, honouring it, inviting it, him or her, to speak for itself?

Today, this distinction has become more important than ever before.
We see this phenomenon in all areas of our lives,
and in politics in particular:
Who today is still concerned with the well-being of others,
who represents the idea of a common good in a way that is believable?
Where is the person who is not primarily concerned with him- or herself,
with their own image, their infallibility, their glory?
This is indeed a hubris we see in many of our current leaders
who raise this narcissism to a hideously distorted level.
The saddest figure of all humankind is Narcissus.
He is not capable of doing anything for anyone else,
least of all creating a valid image of another person.
Only someone capable of loving and cherishing others,
someone who lets the beauty of others, but also their pain and suffering, get to him, or her,
someone who gets involved, who listens, who spends time,
only that person can be said to be peace-loving,
capable of fostering peace.

Sebastião Salgado is such a man, and although he is, by his own admission, not a believer,
I’m not sure whether I can accept this assertion completely,
as he named two of his most important works
after the first and second books of the Bible.
These two books take us on a direct path to Martin Buber,
that great German-Jewish theologian, philosopher and humanist
who received this Peace Prize in 1953, here, at this very site
and who found words about peace
that I have not heard expressed more beautifully better since.

“The great peace is something essentially different from the absence of war.
In an early mural in the town hall of Siena,
the civic virtues are assembled.
Worthy, and conscious of their worth, the women sit there,
except one in their midst towers above the rest.
This woman is marked not by dignity but rather by composed majesty.
Three letters announce her name: PAX.
She represents the great peace I have in mind. […]
The Sienese painter had glimpsed the majesty of PAX in his dream alone.
He did not acquire the vision from historical reality,
for it has never appeared there.
What in history has been called peace has never, in fact,
been aught other than an anxiousor an illusory blissful pause between wars.
But the womanly genius of the painter’s dream
is no mistress of interruptions but the queen of new and greater deeds.”[1]

Sebastião Salgado is a contemporary ‘Sienese painter’ in the sense invoked by Buber.
He paints and draws with light,
and from out of ‘photòs’ (light) and ‘graphein’ (drawing) emerge paintings of light
which, in the monumental collection of images known as GENESIS,
call our attention to the great peace our planet longs for.
In his previous ‘narrative picture epics’, he uncovered for us the conditions
that would make this great global peace possible:
a renewed commitment to the dignity of all human beings,
to their right to work, to a homeland, to a roof over their heads,
and to a fair share of the wealth of the world,
enough, at least, to feed their families and lift them out of poverty.

Throughout his entire oeuvre, in which Lélia Wanick Salgado played no small part, 
the commitment of this photographer has helped us gain a sense
of what is the great enemy of peace in our time:
the brutal demise of compassion, of shared responsibility, of community spirit,
of a fundamental will to forge the equality of the human race.

Martin Buber named his key work ‘I AND THOU’.
Only through our encounters with each other do we become ‘I’,
only through differentiation from one another do identity and respect emerge.
In our other fundamental relationship, according to Buber, in the ‘I AND IT’,
this ‘I’ defines itself in relation to its environment, that is, to the ‘IT’,
which also becomes a counterpart that wants to be seen and respected.

Salgado’s photography is a tangible visual rendering of these very ideas.
His work constantly challenges us, encourages us, inspires us
to seek, to recognise and to acknowledge the ‘THOU’
– in the other who looks out at us –
and to encounter the ‘IT’
in our glorious yet exploited and ailing Mother Earth.

The incredible thing, Sebastião, is that you would still be a hero of peace
even if you had never taken a single photograph.
Indeed, the nearly three million trees that you and Lélia planted
would speak for you,
as would the empirical research carried out at your TERRA Institute,
which proved that even the worst injuries to nature can be reversed,
that even the tropical rainforest can be restored,
so that springs and waterfalls rush forth again and birds and insects return.

This chapter of your life could also be titled GENESIS,
a different genesis in which WE ALL take responsibility. 

Sebastião, we thank you for both.

Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.


[1] Translation taken from Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception by Wim Wenders & Mary Zournazi, 2013