Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age

A turbaned coal worker with a pickax on one shoulder stares directly into the camera on the cover of Sebastião Salgado’s 400 page, extraordinary book titled, Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age. The men in the photograph are coal miners from the Dhanbad region in Bihar, India, and were photographed by Salgado in 1989 as part of his Workers series where, over a period of six years beginning in 1986, the acclaimed photo-journalist traveled through many continents photographing on the theme of manual labor. The book, which reflects the worsening conditions of communities neglected by governments also pays tribute to the human conditions, and those who tirelessly work with their hands with dignity, at the core of modern civilization. His moving, often unsettling, perspective shifting images of life on Earth tell profound truths in both beautifully aestheticized and raw ways.

Work as the Result of Training and Heritage

It comes as no surprise that Salgado was attracted to documenting the most uncomfortable realities of our contemporary world, as he himself was born into a volatile, Brazilian government, Salgado believes that his

“work is the result of his training, his heritage, cultural and ideological and ethical.”

He was born in 1944 in the town of Aimorés in Brazil and later moved to Vitória to study economics. Salgado completed his Masters degree in the same area at the University of São Paulo. After his Masters, he moved to Europe, France initially, then to London to work as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. During his first years working, he made frequent travels to Africa, where he started to acknowledge lives lived in extremely poor conditions.

From Economics to Photography

His interest began shifting from economics to photography and he began working as a freelance photographer, before joining the prestigious Magnum Agency in 1979. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans, and Lewis Hine were a few of his greatest influences, from whom he learned the intricacies of composition, contrast, character, and the humanistic quality in photography. Salgado especially gained recognition in the 80s when he photographed the famine and its effects in the Sahel region of Africa. Although an activist, Salgado does not define himself as an activist photographer;

I was, when I was young,” says Salgado, “an activist, a leftist. I was a Marxist, very concerned for everything. And politics – activism, for me, was very important. But when I started photography, it was quite a different thing. I did not want to make pictures just because I was an activist or because it was necessary to denounce something. I made pictures because it was my life in the sense that that was how I expressed what was in my mind – through the language of photography. For me, it’s much more than activism. It’s my way of life, photography.”

An Era of Suffering

Salgado’s photographs document specific events of human pain caused by exploitation, war and ecological destruction, yet direct towards a sense of universality, in the sense that such pain does not have race or nationality.

One of the most iconic examples of his work is brought together in his book, Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age. Salgado’s Workers reportage is a

visual archeology of a time that history knows as the Industrial Revolution, a time when men and women worked with their hands.”

The first sentence of its foreword reads; “These photographs tell the story of an era.”, an era of suffering which beautifully comes alive through Salgado’s masterful technique and devotion. The book, which consists of only black and white photographs, is divided into six sections; Agriculture, Food, Mining, Industry, Oil and Construction.

Depicting Scenes and Faces of Pride and Dignity

Whether in the gold mines of Serra Pelada in Brasil, the tea plantations of Rwanda or the coal mines of India, the series of photographs depict scenes and faces of pride and dignity, even when in extreme exhaustion. Salgado believes that it is crucial for a photographer to first identify with his subject, and spend long periods of time in order to create a fully engaged relation to his subjects and carry out his photography as authentically as possible. His motivation behind creating the Workers series is one that is utterly personal. He explains:

I did Workers because for me, for many years, workers were the reason that I was active politically. I did studies of Marxism, and the base of Marxism is the working class. I saw that we were arriving at the end of the first big Industrial Revolution, where the role of the worker inside that model was changed. And I saw in this moment that many things would be changed in the workers’ world. And I made a decision to pay homage to the working class. And the name of my body of work was Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age, because they were becoming like archeology. It was photographs of something that was disappearing, and that for me was very motivating. So that was my identification.”

Sebastião Salgado, Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age (book and photograph)
Sebastião Salgado, Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age (book and photograph), 1993, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Three Coal Miners from India

The series is considered one of the preeminent examples of the photography of humanity, where once experienced, one is left with a long-lasting, powerful after-feeling. The cover photo of the three coal miners from India, taken in 1989, brings together all the best qualities that display Salgado’s mastery in photography. Although the picture is in black and white, and also contrasted, there is a certain grayness overall, which lends the image a cinematic, painterly quality.

The richness of texture and layering is present in each detail. The texture of the Indian worker’s turban at the front, for example, almost resemble a pencil painting, whereas the monochromatic composition overall creates a sculptural effect.

Accentuating the Very Moment

Salgado’s techniques to accentuate the very moment give the photo an extraordinary level of depth, a component Salgado pays incredible importance to. Such level of depth is seen with the positioning of the three miners, where the they literally stand in front of the other, therefore creating the depth of field. All three appear with different facial expressions; the man in front stares directly into the camera, his straight gaze is also perhaps a silent yet intense showing of his pride. The miner in the middle, appears a bit more aggressive, exhausted. The third, on the other hand, has a grin on his face, with a bodily stance which is almost posing for the camera –  ironic given the circumstances and the conditions of that very moment. The closeness Salgado feels for his subjects in the picture, both physically and mentally is the same closeness the viewer feels when looking at the photograph. There is a sense that Salgado, hence the viewer is looking into the workers’ soul; we do not look at the photograph, but through it. On looking at the subject into his eyes (through the lens of his camera) Salgado says,

“I shoot with closed aperture, because I believe that’s how we, the human eye sees as well, all focused. The eye does not blur.”

An Attachment between the Viewer and the Subject

The aesthetic perfection and directness of the picture creates a level of attachment between the viewer and the subject. On this sincere exchange, Salgado further adds;

“There comes a time when it’s not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.”

It is that very attachment that Salgado’s photographs emphasize hope and endurance.

Worldwide Recognition

Sebastião Salgado, whose career spans over four decades has won almost every photography award there is. Among them are the Eugene Smith Award for Humanitarian Photography, two ICP Infinity Awards for Journalism, the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Award, and the Arles International Festival’s prize for the best photography book of the year for Workers.

Revealing the Vast History of Humankind and the Hugeness of Earth

Although harrowing in content, the beauty of the photographs lends dignity to the subjects in them. Salgado’s photographs show the suffering and the beauty of the world, often hand in hand, which evoke visceral emotions in the viewer. His choice of using only black and white allows the viewer to concentrate on the emotion, and interpret the image solely for what it is. The depth, both in composition and meaning in his photographs reveals the vast history of humankind and the hugeness of Earth itself.