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The Wanderers

Roger Rosenblatt considers the work of photographer Sebastian Salgado.

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  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    "More than ever, I feel that the human race is one. There are differences of color, language, culture and opportunities, but people's feelings and reactions are alike."

    That was said by Sebastio Salgado, the great photographer who usually speaks with his camera. He does so most recently in an exhibit that runs till September 9, at the International Center of Photography in New York City; and in two new books, "Migrations" and "The Children." All deal with the same subject. The children photographed are the displaced of Rwanda, Mozambique, Croatia, Burundi, Brazil, Vietnam, and the other overlooked, underfed parts of the world where vast numbers of people wander. Wandering– in hunger, despair, and a general yearning– is what Salgado's work has centered on lately. The slow, silent meanderings of 100 million migrants disrupts conventional notions of world unity and community. The idea of nationhood itself is tossed aside by pictures of a species ejected, lost, and searching.

    It is interesting to note what he does with the children as distinct from the arid landscapes and strange groupings of the "Migrants" book. "The Children" is all portraits of kids looking directly into the camera. They are, in this sense, posed, and one might expect them to have put their best faces forward. But they have only their real, consistent faces to show– honed in want, fear, confusion, and the terrible, desperate alertness that comes from living without a home. So that is what we see, looking from our world into theirs and from theirs into ours. As Salgado says, it's the same world. We have to look back; they see us seeing them.

    I did several stories with Salgado in the 1990's, principally in Rwanda for the New York Times Magazine and in Sudan for Vanity Fair. We always worked the same way. We would talk throughout the night but split up during the daytime, each taking his individual impressions, verbal and pictorial, and then meeting later. In the end we always wound up with exactly the same stories because we were visiting exactly the same place-us: Different colors, different languages, different opportunities, different cultures, but all within the same friable condition, and all looking for the something that might be true in one another.

    Communism fails, globalism is ridiculed; yet everything still argues for a cooperative picture of the world. We speak a lot of connectedness and think that we prove it by the Internet. The connectedness, as Salgado's photos demonstrate, is biological, and right before our eyes. Rove the world of migrations– the dry fields, the swollen rivers, the thirst, the weariness, the wariness, the loneliness, especially in numbers– and it is our world, too, everybody's world. That 100 million live on the run or on the crawl is not the exception, it is who we are. One flick of a government, climate, or disease, and we all become refugees. The least, the poorest, the most helpless among us are ourselves.

    In "Workers," Salgado's study of world labor, he created pictures that seemed gauzed in a biblical past. He does not do that here. The pictures of the exhibit and the books are very clear, the shapes and the lines pop. Without mist or equivocation, the pictures say: Here we are, here we all are, plain as night or daylight. This is why, I believe, Salgado always works in black and white. In one way or another, he suggests, everyone is ejected, lost, and searching, and wandering the world until we find one another.

    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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