Swarms of Brazilian men raise rusted scythes and fists in the air. It’s the takeover of the Cuiab plantation in rural Brazil in 1996, which helped bring about worker-owned cooperatives. Near this image of celebration is the bloodied face of a farmworker as he rests in a coffin, buried along with 18 others murdered in an unsuccessful peasant revolt.

This is the crux of photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s work: intimate images of the joy and–much, much more often than not–the suffering of human lives.

Until Sunday, Mar. 28, the Ackland Art Museum on the UNC campus and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University are hosting a collaborative exhibit entitled Migrations: Humanity in Transition. Migrations is the result of a six-year project by Salgado, a renowned Brazilian documentary photographer and photojournalist.

The exhibit is featured in four parts. Part I–Migrants and Refugees: The Survival Instinct is featured at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. The remainder: Part II–The African Tragedy: A Continent Adrift, Part III–Latin America: Rural Exodus, Urban Disorder, and Part IV–Asia: The World’s New Urban Face, are featured at the Ackland.

Salgado was born in Brazil in 1944 and received his Ph.D in economics from the University of Paris in 1971. He began working as an economist, but on a trip to Africa in 1973, his wife gave him a camera. He realized he could make a much bigger difference in what he saw was wrong with society if he used a camera rather than statistics. On his Web site, he says, “My big hope is to aid and provoke a debate so that we can discuss the human condition looking from the point of view of displaced peoples around the world.”

Salgado’s work teeters between photojournalism, documentary photography and fine art. While he endeavors to portray the tragedy and suffering of humanity, his almost impressionistic use of light, landscape and contrast proves his innate talent as an artist.

Salgado, who also produced these images in a book entitled Migrations: Humanity in Transition, conceived the project in 1993. For seven years, he followed the migrations of dispossessed people in over 40 countries, including Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, rural migrants looking for a better life in Asian megacities and orphaned street children in his native Brazil.

Part of what makes this massive exhibit–300 photographs featuring literally hundreds of thousands of subjects in dozens of cities and refugee camps–so compelling, is the contrast between their disparate cultures but interconnected struggles. In his introduction to the Migrations book, he talks about the beauty he found on his travels, and also the hate, violence and greed. He says, “I also came to understand, as never before, how everything that happens on earth is connected. We are all affected by the widening gap between rich and poor, by the availability of information, by population growth in the Third World, by the mechanization of agriculture, by rampant urbanization, by destruction of the environment, by nationalistic, ethnic, and religious bigotry.”

Salgado makes the distinction between refugees and migrants by whether they were able to make a decision about their migration. Refugees are those displaced by war, famine, or environmental degradation, he says, while migrants are those who leave their homes by choice–although their socioeconomic conditions (read: abject, devastating poverty) makes “choice” a relative word.

Salgado has no problem with subjectivity and often inserts his opinion in the accompanying texts. One such text reads: “Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, is unable to feed its rural population adequately because land is concentrated in the hands of an elite minority.”

Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Exhibitions for the Ackland Art Museum, who first saw this project at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York, envisioned bringing the exhibit to the Ackland and using it as an educational tool for students, local citizens, and as a way to bring the immigrant community into the museum. One of her goals is to encourage diverse groups of people–from Asian studies majors to city and regional planners–to challenge themselves with the sheer amount of information on display.

Matilsky found that bringing Salgado’s work was an enormous undertaking; Migrations is the largest traveling exhibit the museum has hosted in its history. Additionally, Matilsky brought an accompanying Salgado exhibit entitled The Children, which, like Migrations, he also produced as a book. This smaller representation is housed in the Knapp Room and shows individual portraits of children who constantly followed Salgado on his travels, asking him to take their photographs. Even after some of the Ackland’s permanent collection was moved to accommodate the works, both exhibits were still too large to be entirely housed at the Ackland.

Exhibitions Director Courtney Reid-Eaton of the Center for Documentary Studies was thrilled to collaborate with Matilsky to bring the other one-third of the exhibit to the CDS. In addition to housing the first of four parts of Salgado’s exhibit, the Center has added another exhibit in the Porch Gallery: The Migrations Transitions Project: Photonarratives with Latin Immigrant Women. Deborah Bender and Melanie Wasserman from the UNC School of Public Health curated this project in the Center’s Porch Gallery, which shows the more mundane aspects of migration, such as finding a dentist or waiting in line for health care.

Reid-Eaton says, “Having these pictures here gives us an opportunity to think about how a photographer might represent a community and how a community might represent itself.”

The Ackland and the Center have set up panels and a learning center to help aid further discussions on the topics of migration and displacement. At the Ackland, in the Knapp Room as well as at the front desk, you’ll find Salgado’s books along with an accompanying booklet that delves deeper into the history and context for each image.

Salgado and his wife Lelia Wanick Salgado–who helped curate the project and design the books–are strict in terms of how each gallery displays his work: The Ackland Museum received detailed instructions on specifically where to display each work in relation to the other images.

In one photograph, an immigrant who has come to Jakarta, Indonesia to find work toils in a field with images of high rise hotels directly jutting from the landscape behind her. A sign atop one of the buildings reads: Shangri-La.

A photograph in the Latin America exhibit shows indigenous women in Ecuador carrying their goods to the local market atop donkeys and backs; the men are all living in cities, trying to provide for their families. In the distance, full clouds loom over shadowed hills. This is as much a photograph of the landscape as it is of migration.

In the Africa exhibit, Salgado merges landscapes with swathes of refugees, displaced from horribly violent civil wars. In one Tanzanian camp, 350,000 refugees from Rwanda gathered during a period of several days.

At the Center for Documentary Studies, many of the Salgado photographs on display portray the peasant uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. The Center also houses SAF, Student Action with Farmworkers. The cross-pollination of these images and action for social change was an obvious choice.

“Salgado is provocative and renowned and we felt like it would be an opportunity for a conversation around the different issues that we at the Center talk about and think about all the time,” says Reid-Eaton. It’s been working. Students at the Ackland exhibit sat silently in front of photographs, writing down their thoughts or discussing the images among their classmates, while comments in the Center for Documentary Studies’ guest book read: “This show reminds me how sheltered we are, in the United States,” or “Very moving” and “Heartbreaking but affirming.” EndBlock

On Sunday, Feb. 29 from 3:00-4:30 p.m., the Ackland Art Museum will host a panel discussion, “Regarding the Pain of Others” that will focus around the ethics, ethos, and documentary practices of Salgado’s work.

On Sunday, Feb. 29 from 2:00-4:00 p.m., the Center for Documentary Studies will host an opening reception for “The Migrations Transitions Project: Photonarratives with Latina Immigrant Women.”

On Tuesday, Mar. 2 at 7:00 p.m., CDS will present The Spectre of Hope, a film featuring a conversation between Sebastiao Salgado and art critic and novelist John Berger about globalization and the worldwide impact of human migration.

For more info, visit the following Web sites:

  • www.ackland.org
  • cds.aas.duke.edu
  • www.terra.com.br/sebastiaosalgado