The massive presence of bodies in long lines, plastered with mud and milling around the holes dug into the soil suggests the sheer size, hardship and precariousness of the manual work. That human mass seemed to have lost its subjectivity, working in an autonomous, nearly mechanical way. Perhaps this is why the scenes recorded by Sebastião Salgado, uniformized in black-and-white, lend the wildcat mine workers a sculptural aesthetics. By imbuing the human bodies with shine, volume and rigidity, the photographer lent them a monumental and objectual aspect.
There is also a temporal impreciseness in his images. Without the information of the historical date of the Serra Pelada episode, the scenes registered by Salgado could allude to the routine of the enslaved masses in the colonial period or even in ancient civilizations, if the capture of images were possible back then. His visuality seems to denounce the barbarities associated to the first structures of civil society and the violent processes that marked the construction of our material culture. They are captive bodies transformed into material and tools for the sake of physical and social constructions.
The nearness of this event, however, is a warning about even more recent issues. That these images were made only a few decades ago raises awareness about exploitive cultural processes that have become established over time and which still persist today. More specifically, the show underscores the importance of revisiting collective and historical memories, to reflect on the effects of developmentalist and extractivist movements, in terms of human hardship and damage to the natural environment.
It is in this sense that Sebastião Salgado’s photographic production has sparked the debate about the relations between art and politics and kindled discussion concerning modes of representation in the social sphere. Throughout his career, the photographer has used the experience of the image to decrease the distance between the various publics of the narratives surrounding territories in a state of tension. By immersing himself in specific communities and localities, he thus amplifies the digressions on alterity and leverages contacts between different modes of sociability.
The photographer, who became renowned for his work with Magnum Photos, is active nowadays with Amazonas Images, a photography agency founded by himself and Lélia Wanick Salgado, dedicated exclusively to his work. The series developed in the Serra Pelada region represents an important moment in Sebastião Salgado’s production and can now be seen at the Sesc São Paulo unit located on Avenida Paulista.