Homage to the labourer

Issue 

Workers: An archaeology of the industrial age
An exhibition of photographs by Sebastiao Salgado
The Art Gallery of NSW until July 23
Reviewed by Lisa Macdonald

This powerful exhibition of 250 black and white photographs by Latin American photo-journalist Sebastiao Salgado pays homage to manual labour and the women, men and children who perform it.

In an effort to record the nature of mass labour before manual workers are replaced by computers and robots, Salgado spent the years from 1986 to 1991 travelling the world with his camera, documenting the labour and lives of workers from France to China, from the former Soviet Union to Rwanda, and from the Asia Pacific to the Americas.

Salgado's subjects, which he records with passion and empathy, are the creators in this world. Whether it is the photographs of children picking tea in Rwanda, sugarcane cutters in Cuba, the women of India digging canals to bring water to the deserts or the 50,000 mud-covered Brazilian gold miners in the huge Serra Pelada mine, Salgado's work leaves no doubt that the working class is the motor force of history.

While it has its light and humorous side, this is not an exhibition for the faint-hearted. Salgado's portraits evoke strong emotions and a lot of them — pleasure at the creativity of each and every image; humility in the face of the dignity of the subjects which Salgado manages to capture; pride at the strength and endurance of human beings in the face of apparently insurmountable odds; and anger at the brutalisation of masses of people on a world scale.

The exhibition is also very educational. Each of the 14 series of photos from a particular region or industry is accompanied by detailed information about the work processes involved and the social and economic history of the people, the industry and the area. Taken together, the images and accompanying information makes a powerful case for socialism.

Despite the profoundly political nature of the exhibition, the form, rather than being overshadowed by the content, is enhanced by it. Salgado's choice of subjects, both human and machine, and his use of light, landscape and perspective make for captivating art. Unlike so much art in the so-called post-modern era, however, this artist uses his medium to identify and communicate commonalities in the human experience, forcing the viewer to confront, relate to and think about the reality of global exploitation of human beings and their environment.

This is art of, by and for the working class. I left the exhibition feeling proud to be a part of that class.