Delve into the profound journey of Barry Salzman, whose upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa ignited his passion for photography as a tool for social commentary. From documenting inequality to exploring abstract representations of trauma, Salzman’s work navigates complex socio-political issues with a blend of creativity and academic rigor. Discover the transformative power of art in confronting humanity’s darkest moments and envisioning a path towards healing and hope.

Barry Salzman, That Evening The Sun Set In The West, Bratunac (Near Srebrenica), Bosnia and Herzegovina
Barry Salzman, “That Evening The Sun Set in the West, Bratunac, (Near Srebrenica), Bosnia and Herzegovina”, 2022

Pulak: Can we begin by talking a bit about your formative years, your upbringing. How was having been schooled in South Africa influenced your outlook towards the world, and how has it trained your eye?

Salzman: The way we were raised and brought up, I was in a very liberal university, so there was a lot political activism. I was very much aware of this activism around me that was very much a product of apartheid in South Africa. It had an effect on my outlook and on what I ended up doing in photography.

I got my first camera as a birthday present when I turned 14. South Africa, at the time, had very strict laws about where people from different races could live. There was no intermingling of the races, there were designated areas for people who were black or mixed raced, and whites. Any non-white people traveling to white areas had to have a passport, a specific permission. I was a young kid and I knew there were certain areas I wasn’t supposed to be in and yet they weren’t so far from where we lived. There was this artificial barrier that was imposed upon us. I remember as a young kid taking my bicycle and riding through a black neighborhood – Crossroads – my first memory of exploration with my camera was tied to exploring what was going on in this community that was opposed to where I lived. The camera almost gave me permission to go some place where I wasn’t supposed to be. It became a vehicle which allowed me to explore areas which would have otherwise been off limits to me. My very early work dealt a lot with the idea of inequality that surrounded me. And later in life when I went back to photography, a lot of these themes carried into the work I do today, which deals with socio-economic, political issues and issues around humanity.

Pulak: Would you say that your earlier work was more observational and documentative?

Salzman: My early work was all black and white. I had my darkroom and as a kid, I developed all negatives myself. But I don’t have a single one of those negatives, sadly. That work was very much documentary. I was observing what I was seeing. Right through my high school and even during my university degree, South Africa, under apartheid, was very isolated. I had very little appreciation for, or rather very little understanding of, photography as an art form. I understood it primarily as a documentary medium. That work, stylistically, is completely different from what I do today. Today, my intention is to create work on subject matters that are traditionally the domain of the documentarian, the historian, the archivist, but to take that work and look at it from a much more creative, aesthetic, abstract angle.


Barry Saltzman, In the Eye of the Beholder, Ongandjera, Namibia, 2022, Archval Giclée Print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag
Barry Saltzman, “In the Eye of the Beholder, Ongandjera, Namibia”, 2022

Pulak: Venturing out to the world and leaving South Africa allowed you to include the creative aspect of the photographic medium to your practice.

Salzman: Actually, for a long time, it was completely dormant. Like I said, I had no idea it was an art form I could study, that it had the makings of a career path. I thought of it as a fairly conventional early career path. I finished high school and then I did an undergraduate degree in Business, and then I went off to the United States completely alone with a backpack.

For the first 25 years in America, I suppose, I completely suppressed this creative part of me in an effort to build a business career, to become successful. When I had a successful business career it always felt a little bit like I was trying to force a square penny into a round hole, I never intuitively connected with it, but I could get through it. Every time I would go to a museum or an exhibition, I would feel this longing, asking myself;

“Why can’t I be doing that?”

It wasn’t until my late 40s, at the peak of my career working at Google as a Managing Director with enormous responsibility, I realized I felt miserable. I was thinking that it felt like an enormous compromise, that it did not feel authentic. It felt like I almost reached a breaking point. When I left Google, people said to me; “you should stick around a couple more years, it would be more lucrative…” and I got to this point where I just couldn’t.

I went to speak to the head of the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, Charles Traub. Charles was very open to bringing me into the program as a more mature student directly into a masters even though I hadn’t done an undergraduate degree in arts. When I was 49 years old, I started my MFA, and it was the first time I studied any form of Liberal Arts. I picked a program that had a significant academic component because I really felt like I needed to understand and build an academic foundation. My MFA was an incredibly intense combination of theory and practice. The advantage of going back to MFA as a more mature student was that you seek out more and more of the opportunity. My experience and practice in the MFA program turned out to be very strongly anchored in socio-economic, humanitarian issues and I think that was a direct function of how I first came into photography during apartheid. I also think coming into the program as a more mature student who has had a successful business career, I almost felt like I had an ethical responsibility to use my photography to try to make the world a better place.


Barry Salzman, What Was And Will Be, Rutsiro District, Rwanda
Barry Salzman, “What Was and Will Be, Rutsiro District, Rwanda”, 2018

Pulak: It seems very disciplined, the way you treat the subject and the way you approach the actual shooting process.

Salzman: Yes, it’s a very considered process, firmly anchored in academic research and theory. There are a lot of wonderful advantages having come to my photography career later in life. There are also some significant challenges. In art school in my critique classes, I was always pushed to be more fluid and more organic, but when I was doing my assignments they would always be anchored in a lot of research. There would always be very deliberate, calculated, well-thought-out works. Whereas, my classmates could shoot their assignments on the subway on their way to school.

Pulak: It was more around 2014 that you started shooting locations of genocide, yet you were also a high level Director at Google. Were you carrying your practice on the side? How did you balance the two together?

Salzman: It was completely different and compartmentalized. It was incredibly different for me to do both. I’m one of those people who straddles uncomfortably between the left brain and the right brain. When I was pursuing my business career, I couldn’t think about photography casually or as a hobby. The reverse is true today. With my professional focus on photography, I don’t focus on business issues at all. I don’t read the business press, I don’t know what’s going on in my old industry. I have to separate from it.

Pulak: When we look at one of your images, we’re not certain of where its location is, unless we are specifically told in the caption. Can you talk about your motive of abstraction where such tragedies occurred, and the tools of abstraction you implement to completely strip it away from its characteristics? It’s a rather ethereal way of approaching such weighted and tragic matters.

Salzman: I try to use my titles in an abstract way, too. There’s almost a nuance to the title. It was a very deliberate process. I had done an enormous amount of research prior to starting on this journey and there were a couple of writers who had a profound impact on my approach to the work. One is a Dutch academic, Ernst van Alphen. He wrote a book specifically looking at contemporary art and the Holocaust. One of his hypotheses is that our ability to absorb the challenging information around this topic is almost saturated. That fact-based, shocking, gruesome way of communicating this information which is typically the way this information is disseminated has reached a point of public saturation. Whatever we can learn from a more didactic approach we’ve already learnt, and yet these atrocities continue. Van Alphen says the fact-based, rational part of our brain processes rational information, that left part of our brain is saturated. He says it is the job of the artist to engage public consciousness with a much more creative, interpretive, abstract approach to this same subject matter. We have to come up with a different way of engaging the public consciousness with information that they think they know because we think we know these stories and we stop processing them. We can never know what a victim of genocide endures. I made a decision, early on, that I was never going to stop trying. To do that, I felt it was really important to move to the other end of the spectrum. If you think of documentary on one side and abstraction on the other, I wanted to move as far from documentary as possible. I felt like I needed to give my audience the space and the room to interpret the work for themselves. The abstraction, in my mind, gives the viewer the opening to interpret the work for themselves.


Barry Salzman, A Ravaged Land Healing I-III Karongi, Rwanda
Barry Salzman, “A Ravaged Land Healing, I-III, Karongi, Rwanda”, 2018

Pulak: When you were talking about how in school you were told to be more fluid, it seems like this is exactly the moment where fluidity comes to play.

Salzman: Exactly. The other writer who influenced me is the French writer Georges Didi-Huberman. He says something along the lines of, “We cannot allow ourselves to invoke the unimaginable.” Because the minute you say “This is so awful, I can not imagine”, you become complicit in the recurrent. He says that we need to force ourselves into that oppressive place of imagining.

The other thing I felt importantly about in the conceptualization process was that I needed to make aesthetic works. I needed to make works that were aesthetically pleasing because for me that was the way in. The response to the work is usually firstly; “Oh my gosh that’s beautiful!’” and then when you look into it more, that tension between that good and the bad, that dark and light, that tension becomes very palpable. But for me the work needed to lead lead with an aesthetic representation. I don’t document the specific sites of trauma. I work with activists, with historians to identify specific locations, and then I’ll work outwards from that location, although always staying within witness distance. Because I think my work talks truly about responsibility as witnesses.

Pulak: It now not only is your responsibility, but the works put a responsibility on us as the viewer to realize that we’re actually public witnesses.

Salzman: Exactly. It let’s you see that that place could be any place.

Pulak: One of your quotes read; “The landscape,” according to the artist, “witnesses all. It sheds its leaves in cover up and complicity. But through its rebirth, so it rejuvenates. It carries with it traces of the past and promises of the future. It triumphs over trauma. It is inextricably intertwined with our darkest moments and brightest days.” Is there a possibility to see an optimistic side to your work in the How We See the World Series?

Salzman: 100%. That idea of using the landscape as a metaphor specifically talks to the rejuvenation, restoration, recovery aspect. The landscape becomes an amazing metaphor for our failings as witnesses and our recovery post-trauma. The landscape sees everything, it does nothing, but it sheds its leaves to cover up the evidence, and it also rejuvenates. It comes back, it heals and recovers. My work, very intentionally, is supposed to talk to that tension between trauma and hope. And you’ll notice that I never include people.

Barry Salzman, Beyond the Pictorial Dimension I, Nyamure, Rwanda, 2018, Archval Glicée Print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag

Pulak: Can we talk a bit on the idea of surface and depth in your photographs? There’s a multilayered aspect to your work not only metaphorically but also quite literally in the way you photograph. The images appear multilayered.

Salzman: A lot of the academic texts that deal with landscape and memory are by Schama. He talks about this notion of the layered landscape, that landscape exists on multiple layers across time. When I think about the layering in my work it’s very much about this notion of creating a visual language to talk to the filters or veils through which we view history. I often use the analogy of a child who watches a scary movie through the gaps of their fingers. But even the child knows that the movie hasn’t changed, the child knows that it’s the same movie. Somehow by putting this veil between evidence and witness you create permission to step back. I wanted to create a visual language to talk to this idea of layering or the veil and what I ended up doing was moving the camera during the exposure. Typically, because your sensor is more sensitive to the highlight range than the shadow range when I tilt the camera at the end of the exposure, it’ll often drag the sky over to the front of the image. So it almost creates this veil in front of the landscape. If I was to comment on the ethics of seeing, I had to impose ethical boundaries on myself about how I made the work. For me, it’s critical that the work is made in a single exposure. There’s no compositing of multiple images. You’ll see that there are very sharply focused areas in the foreground and blurry areas in the background, and all of that is accomplished through the movement of the camera during the exposure.


Barry Salzman, The Language Of Landscape Drina Valley (Near Srebrenica), Bosnia and Herzegovina
Barry Salzman, “The Language of Landscape, Drina Valley (Near Srebrenica), Bosnia and Herzegovina”, 2022

Pulak: How do you generally prefer your work to be presented in a gallery space? The presentation has a tremendous affect on how the viewer perceives the work. Do you have specific instructions on what size the photographs are printed, or perhaps curated?

Salzman: Very much so. I only work in one size. The works are not available in multiple sizes specifically because I think that the size the works get presented at is a material creative decision. I don’t like the idea of making the same work available in multiple sizes. The size of the work is such an important part of how the work is understood and appreciated and I made a very conscious decision that I would size the works only to be available at that size. There are the single landscapes, which is the majority of what I do, and then I create a few grid works. The landscapes all have a 5cm border around and are all 110 x 143 cm. I felt very strongly about locking into one size. For me, making the work available in multiple sizes starts to detract from the integrity of the work, and starts to move the work into the domain of interior decoration and design. I would rather the work have a profound impact on the viewer instead of them saying; “I don’t have a place for it.” What I can tell you though, is that most certainly, my next body of work will be in multiple sizes. (laughs)

Barry Salzman is an award-winning contemporary artist who currently works in photography, video and mixed media. Salzman was born in Zimbabwe and schooled in South Africa. He emigrated to the United States when he was 21. After an initial business career, he began working as a full-time artist. His interest in photography started when, as a teenager, he was moved to document racially segregated areas under Apartheid, in an effort to understand the racial inequality that surrounded him. Today, his work continues to explore challenging social, political and economic issues, including the increasing universal fatigue around the Holocaust narrative, the fraying of the American Dream and society’s complicit behavior in the recurrence of modern day genocide.

Since 2014, Salzman has worked on projects that address trauma and memory, often related to the recurrence of genocide. He is particularly interested in our role as public witness — “what we see when we look.” His work often depicts abstract landscapes, made at sites of genocide, that he represents in literal and metaphoric ways to reflect on trauma and healing. While the images are shot at precise locations where acts of genocide were perpetrated, his use of visual tools of abstraction reminds us that ‘that place’ can be ‘any place’. Salzman currently resides between New York City and Cape Town.

He has an MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from The School of Visual Arts in New York City, a Bachelor of Business Science degree from the University of Cape Town, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.