He Is a Camera

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SITING AMID HIS PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION at Philadelphia's Museum of Art, Sebastião Salgado is explaining how, in a sense, he does photography the numbers. "I'm a former economist, and always in my work there are links to this past," he says in his heavily accented English. In the late '70s he noticed the closing of steel plants in France and car factories in Pittsburgh; by the early '80s he was brooding about the machines that were replacing manual labor in the Third World. "The working class is disappearing forever," he says. "I wanted to pay homage to them."

After six years in some 50 countries, Salgado has assembled the fruits of his labor in Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, a show that is his latest credential as photojournalist of the moment. Salgado has made his name documenting the lives of the downtrodden, most notably Latin-American peasants and African famine victims. Workers (which will tour the U.S. through 1997) features about 250 photos, including "some of the most powerful images any photographer has produced," raves the Philadelphia Inquirer.

At 49, the Brazilian-born Salgado has become a booming, one-man industry. His day rate for magazines hovers at $10,000, and his prints sell for up to $2,500 apiece. Though his work is shown in museums, Salgado doesn't consider himself an artist. His heroes include American photojournalists Walker Evans and Eugene Smith, and he takes pride in shooting in natural light and spending plenty of time with his unposed subjects. "It's not the photographer who really does the picture," he says, "but the person in front of you who gives a gift. And it's your relationship that makes things come out stronger."

Yet Salgado rarely tells intimate stories of the people whose lives he has touched. He prefers to discuss wage scales, profit margins, money markets—the economic forces behind their misery and beyond their control. And the reformer in him would like to help fix all that. "Pictures can inform people, provoke debate and raise funds," says Salgado, who donates part of his profits to humanitarian groups as a way of easing the suffering.

Born in the town of Aimores, Salgado was the only son of a cattle rancher who wanted him to become a lawyer. But after attending Vitória College in the state ol Espírito Santo—where he met and married fellow student Lelia Deluiz Wanick at age 23—Sebastião began studying economics at São Paulo University. Both he and Lelia joined the popular movement against Brazil's rightist military regime and, he says, saw "many friends imprisoned, shot down, tortured and killed." In 1969 the couple fled to Paris, where Salgado completed his economics Ph.D.—save for his dissertation—and Lelia studied architecture.

A decisive moment came in 1971 after Salgado moved to London and began working as an economist for the International Coffee Organization, a cartel of coffee producers. Sent to a Rwandan tea plantation, Salgado took along Lelia's Nikon. "When I came home and looked at the pictures, I got much more pleasure from them than the economic reports I had to write." he says. Poring over books, going to exhibits and teaching himself the craft, Salgado became convinced that photography was "the way to go inside reality," as opposed to the dry, statistical portraits of the economist. "For me this was a huge change," he says, "but I have no idea why I wanted this."

In 1973 he quit his job and went to Niger with Lelia to document the famine there; the next year he was assigned by the World Council of Churches to record the tragedy in Ethiopia. Salgado was invited to join the prestigious Magnum photo cooperative in 1979. Two years later, while covering Ronald Reagan for a New York Times Magazine story, Salgado was in the doorway of the Washington Hilton when John Hinckley tried to assassinate the President. "I was taking the first picture when I heard the shot fired," says Salgado, who did not understand what was going on. "I started running to keep taking pictures. I wanted to stay inside what was happening." Then came his photos of Latin-American peasants (compiled in the 1984 book Other Americas), of the 1984-85 famine in Africa's Sahel region, and of the miners at Serra Pelada in Brazil. He has since won virtually every major U.S. photography award, and a retrospective show toured the country last year.

Slinging his three Leicas—with wide-angle, standard and portrait lenses—round his neck, Salgado works up to eight months a year, always alone. All the better for intimate images and for the personal, if fleeting, relationships Salgado says he cherishes. He points at a portrait of an anonymous worker fighting the burning oil wells in Kuwait after the Gulf War. "I knew this person, ate with him, told a little bit of my life to this person, and he to me," he says. "A picture for a photographer is not like one for a stranger looking at it; for me, it is like the tip of an iceberg."

Such earnestness doesn't always go down well with Salgado's colleagues. "He has this aura of being a saint, but there's something very bizarre about making such large quantities of money by selling individual prints of people who are suffering," says photographer Donna Ferrato, who refuses to sell prints from her recent project on battered women, Living with the Enemy. Critics have also questioned the carefully composed "beauty" of Salgado's pictures, which they say exalts and so diminishes the poverty and pain of the people in them.

Salgado is baffled by such complaints. If an exquisite shaft of light falls across the gaunt, ashy face of an Ethiopian child, he reasons, why not seize the moment? And he flatly refutes the suggestion that he exploits his subjects. "This sense of guilt is very American. If I can use my pictures to help other people have food, medicine and homes, why feel guilty for that?" he says, his voice rising with agitation as he describes how he donates book profits to humanitarian groups, including the French organization Doctors Without Borders. "The big problem with becoming a point of reference is that you must justify what you're doing. It's very boring."

Salgado's retreat is his Paris loft, where he and Lelia, 45, enjoy classical music and the company of friends, including Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado. The loft has a darkroom where Salgado makes initial prints of all his photographs; Lelia designs his books and organizes his exhibits. "We work very well together," she says. "I like him. He knows what he wants and always does things his way. And he is a gentleman—a very good man with women." Salgado finds it harder to express his feelings. "I don't know where my life ends and life with Lelia begins," he says. "It's not to say we don't have fights and problems, but we have built a life together."

That includes two sons—Juliano, 19, an economics student at Paris University, and 13-year-old Rodrigo, who has Down syndrome. The early years were difficult for the family, but Rodrigo has taught them some invaluable life lessons, says Salgado. "He's bilingual—he understands French and Portuguese—but sometimes he doesn't speak for hours. We've learned how to understand without speaking—by feeling and being there." Rodrigo likes baking (he makes a cake every Sunday) and is also something of a shutterbug.

Salgado is already planning his next project—refugees. He admits to thinking about posterity, with his usual quantitative bent. "If at the end of my life I have 250 good pictures—and only a few photographers like Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans do—and each one is shot at½50 of a second, then I'll have one second's worth of good pictures," he says. Mindful of the clock ticking, Salgado feels compelled to keep moving. "It's like riding a bicycle—you stop and you fall down. My conscience tells me I must work hard during the time I can."

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