The demons of confusion are always with me at large-scale photo exhibitions of Sebastiao Salgado. They didn’t fail to come by during a recent visit to the David Brower Center Hazel Wolf Gallery. How am I to interpret this image? Am I seeing art, or reportage? Which sector of my brain is lighting up, or better, which interpretive genie in me is to take precedence?

On the one hand this is photographic art, of the highest sort, standing with Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, Eugene Smith and many others, technically perfect, imaginatively conceived, splendidly curated. From across the room, the beauty of sun streaming through the branches of enormous banyan trees, whose trunks dominate the vertical space within the frame draws the eye, and then the body. This is amazing, the beauty-struck brain shouts. Or, on another wall, in degrees of white, crescents form in the right foreground, large and bending into a distant left corner, an almost abstract image of advance under great load, perhaps just a play of form and minimalism.

Yet when we approach close enough to see, actually, and to block out other images in the room, the content of these images is horrific: people clustering under the trees, hiding from MIG jet attacks of Somalian forces, the faces we can see gone vacant with worry; a woman leading two terrifically emaciated children, barely walking, across the sands — enormously magnifying the absence of food in the children’s bodies.

The minds of those who wish to see grapple with this great unconformity. Starvation is NOT art! Terror is NOT beauty. These frozen moments of great grief and bare survival should not be displayed before us while we whisper in knowing sadness and sip our wine. And yet, and yet …these events must not be ignored, hidden, not not known. What would be better? Should the images only appear in newspapers? On posters stuck to lamp posts? The famous Gene Smith photo, “Tomoko in the Bath,” appeared initially in Life Magazine, as the centerpiece of a photo essay, intended to bring attention to the deforming and crippling Minimato mercury poisoning disease. Smith and his wife worked for years on behalf of the victims. This seems appropriate, a proper use of a powerful tool, yielded by those with a vision, of art and compassion. Even so, the photo, though withdrawn from circulation at the request of the family, is available as an objet d’art to interested collectors — who, likely, are not using their acquisitions to raise funds for the stricken.

Certainly such images should not appear at all, except perhaps as fantasy warnings of unthinkable futures, or as historical documentation of terrible time, like Mathew Brady’s American Civil War photos. But the world we live in, and which Salgado explores, is a cauldron of the unthinkable and terrible. Images MUST appear, and yet, and yet….

The thought passes: Where would this be hung? Who would hang such an image? In what living room? In what family room?

Not all of the Salgado photos Brower Center are of human misery. Some join our eyes and minds to nature’s drama, large as ice constructions and small as iguana feet. Some of his best known work is of workers, who though desperately poor by all standards, still have in the photos, dignity and even laughter. Some, properly, could be hung in private residences or public spaces to constantly amaze the passing eye. But even as this is true, their sharing the space with the art-of-the-wretched magnifies the problem. In the one series art enhances and magnifies objects of the world, in praise or supplication perhaps, in forms of magic and incantation as art has always done. In the other series, the same powers and purposes of art crash against the non-object, the not to be praised, the not to be wondered at and we are left conflicted, adrift.

It’s as though, we fall into a mental Carrollian warp: this is art no not art yes art no not art. Ah! the composition of this piece! Oh, the bones of the ribs, showing…

It’s no better that much of Salgado’s work appears in over-size, coffee table books –despite the income they might be bringing to groups grappling with the miseries portrayed. It is the same problem, writ somewhat smaller than the large wall hangings. What are we to make of such books on our own, or friends tables, on display with other such books – though of suns, beaches, cliff faces… What are we seeing as we flip the pages? Misery as presentation, as decoration.

Nor are we better off with certain images, flung around the internet, becoming iconic and entering into popular culture — on mugs, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, such as Munch’s The Scream, the original content, and context completely sucked from it. So, Salgado’s most famous Mali famine photo, of 1985 is in danger of becoming.

Salgado is not waiting for my opinion, or those of others, disturbed, like me. He is doing what he must do — express what he sees and let the world take its own course. I’d a lot rather have him and others like him, sending their misery testaments back into the lands of plenty and the so very near sighted, than not. Yet I can’t help but think that the aesthetisization of the terrible, is itself a creature whose evolution is not a good sign of our collective well-being.

Perhaps you’ll spend a quiet hour at the Wolf Gallery in Berkeley’s Brower Center before the exhibit ends on January 31st, and help me understand how to understand.

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