Where death frames every move

March 18, 2005

Images of suffering in drought-ridden Africa have particular resonance for Nemai Ghosh.

Sebastião Salgado's humanistic documentation of famine in Sahel: The End of the Road transported me to my childhood encounter with the Bengal famine of 1943. I remember visiting Calcutta, the final resort of the starving victims, with my mother. Time has not erased my eight-year-old memory of malnourished bodies wandering the streets, crying for food. One image stands out most vigorously: that of numerous, random, unidentified bodies being dumped into crematoriums; unrecognised skin and bone being burnt to ashes and discarded in a matter-of-fact way. As a photographer, I doubt if I could ever have recorded on film such stark suffering mingled with such utter humiliation. But the memory haunts me still, as does Salgado's comment: "The planet remains divided."

This artist-thinker-photographer's realisation that the First World suffers from a crisis of excess while the Third is in a crisis of need was reflected in miniature form in the province of Bengal during the time of the British Raj. The famine was not the result of any environmental calamity but came out of the Second World War, the greed of both rich and poor, and the callousness of government officials. But while at least 3 million people died, they were mostly the rural poor; the urban middle class remained largely unaffected. I wonder how Salgado would have captured the suffering of this miserable multitude? Would he have been able to find even a shred of the dignity that he has discovered in the inhabitants of Sahel? What else could he have recorded, if not defeat? A colossal human defeat.

Salgado photographed the arid, drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa (which stretches over parts of Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Sudan) during 15 months in 1984-85, when 1 million people were dying of starvation. As part of a team of doctors-turned-saviours from Medecins sans Fronti res, Salgado recorded the suffering of this huge population for whom death had become an everyday reality. Images of emaciated, inert bodies lying about in the refugee camps, on the long migratory routes to neighbouring Sudan or at funeral sites, or of the body of a dead child in an old man's arms, make one wonder if these people were truly confronting death or drowsily submitting themselves to it. Or was it more a submission to the dry, fractured, dead earth towards which a man is seen bowing down in prayer? Death seems to triumph over all, except for in occasional images, such as that of a young boy smiling as his companions listen to the sound of water flowing through a pipe, of a child in the care of a medical worker and of a woman giving birth.

Especially haunting are the eyes of those who look directly at us - such as the man in Wad Kauli camp and the child in the throes of death at Korem camp. Orville Schell's comment in the book's foreword is remarkably apt.

For Schell, Salgado's photographs raise an "unspoken question": "How can this be?" Eduardo Galeano's response to these stares in his afterword is equally moving: "These people fix their gaze on you. They seem more dead than alive. But they look at you and silently they address you. My world is your world, too, they say; my time is also your time."

In the introduction, Fred Ritchin comments on his tireless efforts to get these photographs, which "recorded another Holocaust", published in the US. I am glad to see that he succeeded - but only after 20 long years of persuasion. Sahel remains an extraordinary document of compassion for those victims of a devastated landscape who would otherwise have been forgotten. It reinforces the reality of the huge gap between haves and have-nots: the hallmark of Salgado's work.

Nemai Ghosh is a photographer based in Calcutta whose work is in the permanent collection of India's National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

Sahel: The End of the Road

Author - Sebastião Salgado
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 139
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 520 24170 3

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