Saturday, September 19, 2009

Terrible beauty

Untitiled, San Francisco, May 2007.

Many photographers show the levity of daily life, but there are those who do not shy away from documenting the weight of its horrors. In San Francisco, a photographer is confronted everyday by human suffering and the misfortune of others. I refrain from taking pictures of the many homeless people who find sustenance in the street; as subjects, they are simply too vulnerable and exposed. But sometimes a picture can hold a light to illuminate their condition, and become instructive: Like when the backs of humanity scurrying past them punctuate their invisibility to the world. Or when a storefront sign that reads "HOUSE" is insult to the injury of their homelessness.

On Market Street, a traffic sign and an advertising copy for running shoes put on unintended irony when they are seen against the sprawled and huddled figures of men who have been "chewed out" by the city, the same men who have become part of the refuse that is periodically removed from the street.

A picture puts a face on the statistic, and sometimes that is reason enough to photograph the unseemly side of this postcard city. An ad for Austrian beer looms large behind a woman who is too inebriated at 5 pm to get up from the pavement. Smoke comes out of a hooded man's face while he rants and raves at pedestrians, his half-seen eyes obscuring the madness in them.

Perhaps no other person has documented human suffering on a more epic scale than Brazilian photographer and activist Sebastião Salgado. Salgado's photographs of workers around the world, famine in Africa, and the dislocated refugees across the globe are monumental calls to action that are as breathtaking for their scope as for their lyrical beauty. Salgado's subjects have been described as "figures of tragic grandeur," which has compelled his critics and detractors to ask: Can suffering be too beautiful? It is a valid debate that will not be resolved anytime soon. But this much is true of Salgado's work. As critic Eduardo Galeano said in the preface to An Uncertain Grace: "... it would be difficult to look at these figures and remain unaffected. I cannot imagine anyone shrugging his shoulder, turning away unseeing, and sauntering off, whistling."

Last three photographs:
Sebastião Salgado, from Workers and from Migrations.

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