“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
In this webinar, we looked at the use of photography in environmental origins. This is a practice that is very close to my heart as one of my main driving ambitions for my photography.
The webinar looked at a number of elements, but the most striking for me was the work of Salgado on Genesis and the comparison with Nick Brandt on Inherit The Dust.
I feel that both have a relevance and a place, but interestingly from the Sontag quote, one has empathy and one apathy for me.
Salgado and his work on Genesis is, for me, a representation of where my practice used to be at the start of my MA. I am struck by the similarities of the process. It’s not the quality or technical approach to the image that’s familiar, its the will of Salgado to show the world as a place of peace, an Eden if you will, where everything is ok.
This beautification of the scene for me gives the observer a reassuring gaze that all is very much as it should be and that ‘I don’t need to worry’.
To me, the images are indeed striking. Individually they stand out as some of the best on their subject I have seen, and to a level that I aspire to with my own technical skill. But I begin to ask questions when I view the wider collection together and when Salgado adds in people.
Here there is an awkwardness to the image, almost like the human content of the work is added in as a reference or an afterthought and not as part of the visual spectacle. It’s presented almost as if Salgado felt he needed to include human subjects in the work.
I can relate to this. When I am walking along the river Otter I do not actually enjoy seeing people. I spend time there to get away from humanity and all its noise. I work all day with people and spend a lot of time supporting friends and family, so for me, my river time is a time for reflective thought and to gain some form of peace.
I find the inclusion of human content in Salgado’s Genesis to almost mirror this thought. More so, it seems to me, that he wants to show humanity as almost an unconsciousness or afterthought to natural creation. One that is there for reference, but would otherwise spoil his gaze on the natural world.
Compare the image above to one of the natural world
Ironically for me, the image above has more humanity within the frame than the one in Fig 1. The way the two albatrosses nestle while overlooking the scene is indeed very familiar when viewed in a human context.
One other element of Salgado’s Genesis is the pure level of energy in each shot and its continued charge through the subject without seemingly changing gear. It creates a dizzying amount of images that are all of the same pace. This causes me to tire out when looking at a larger collection of images. More so as there is no place for the eye to rest or refocus.
In my own practice, I don’t choose to include people in my work, as originally I felt that it would take something away from the river scene. I was aiming almost to show the river in a true wild sense. This in itself is fine, but when looked at in the context of wider work – such as Salgado’s Genesis, I can now see where I was going wrong, in respect to a grounding for the work and framing it in a wider metaphoric view.
However, I can also see that just including people in my images as – simply because I feel I have to – could throw the observer off the narrative I want them to follow.
So for me, as outstanding a collection of images it is, Salgado’s Genesis I find is being apathetic when viewed in the context of this comparison. I say this largely due to the change of cultural standing we now see in terms of the natural world. All is very much not well.
Nick Brandt’s work on Inherit The Dust, however, is for me a polar opposite to Salgado’s. More so due to the context in which Brandt is working to and the recognition that the world has changed. The natural world is no longer an Eden, more a place of sadness and disappearing gazes.
Developed over four years, Brandt incorporates select images of endangered wildlife, taken on a Pentax 67II and shot in a way as to bring forward the animals true identity.
These images are then produced into large format prints and physically placed into the current African landscape and rephotographed. The aim is to show the destruction to the natural world and how such species are at very near risk of total annihilation.
For me, the image above sums up Brandt’s work. The view of which infuses the fading elephant and the scene of what once was, with the local residents, backs turned, almost completely oblivious to the spectacle and memory of these great animals. The wasteland they sit on, their own creation.
Humanity has almost turned its back on the natural world, in favour of greed and commercial growth. The Western world’s continued demand for electrical, digital and mechanical products simply devouring the heart out of the landscape.
My sadness cannot be conveyed in words, especially when hearing stories of my family growing up in Uganda. Knowing I could never have their gaze on a landscape that once was known as the birthplace of humanity. I now see it as a monument to despair, death and the desecration of the natural world.
Brandt’s images are, in my view, thought-provoking and almost shameful in the harsh contrast between the animal and the landscape they are rephotographed in.
This message I find is a form of shock tactics that uses the aesthetics of the wider scene to drive home a clear environmental message. That being the true nature of the impact we are having on the world and that we are choosing to ignore this impact.
Our position if you will, is almost that of Salgado’s Genesis. Our gaze fixed on the beautification of the lion or elephant. Our reaction to the great leopard on the African savannah one of elation and sense of spiritual connection. But a clear ignorance to what is actually happening to them.
Brandt on the overhand offers a new gaze, one that is shocking, sicking and saddening. But he does so in a clever way. We are not repulsed by his images, nor are we forced to look away. Instead, we want to look further, deeper into the frame. The more we do, the more we see ourselves, a mirror to our own ethical stance on what’s happening.
These images want us to do more, make a difference, drive for change.
These images indeed speak and they talk of empathy.
I now see a new path for my practice, one that may yet allow me to tell a real story.
- Sontag, S. (2005). Regarding the pain of others. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books, p.79.
- Brandt, N. (2016). Nick Brandt. 1st ed. Thames & Hudson.
- Salgado, S. and Salgado, L. (2013). Sebastiao Salgado. 1st ed. Koln, Germany: Taschen.
- Fig 1 – Salgado, S. (2007). Mursi Village Of Dargui In Mago National Park, In The Jinka Region. Ethiopia. (image source)
- Fig 2 – Salgado, S. (2007). Two black-browed albatrosses nestle while overlooking the Willis Islands near South Georgia, in the far South Atlantic. (source media)
- Fig 3 – Brandt, N. (2015). Wasteland with elephant and residents. (source media)