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The Kamaz camp for displaced Afghans
© S Salgado/Amazonas images
Sebastiao Salgado's EXODUS
by Scott Steedman


A wake up call in black & white

Thousands of ant-like miners toil in the mud of a Brazilian gold mine, climbing makeshift ladders with heavy buckets of dirt on their backs. Covered from head to foot with muck, their ragged loincloths barely visible, they are watched by company guards armed with machine guns.
These extraordinary images, like modern pictures of hell on Earth, were among the many highlights of “Workers,” Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s monumental and gut-wrenching 1993 survey of manual labor around the world. Now Salgado is back with not one but two new epic collections of black-and-white photographs, this time focusing on the mass movements of people across the globe: “Migrations: Humanity in Transition and The Children: Refugees and Migrants.” Like their subject, the project is staggering in its sweep. Containing 340 photos taken in 40 countries over seven years, the exhibitions that have just opened in Paris, Sao Paolo, New York and Rome will be touring the globe over the next two years, including a special audio and video presentation at the U.N. Millennium Assembly in New York this fall. French TV channel Canal Plus is presently airing 30 three-minute films based on the photos, while the accompanying books are being published simultaneously in seven languages, including English (Aperture) and French (Exodes and Les Enfants de l'Exode, De La Martinière).
The really good news is that the pictures themselves are well worth the fuss. The subjects — refugees in Kosovo and Bosnia, camps in Rwanda, street kids in Sao Paolo, Mexicans crossing into Texas — are full of suffering and sadness. But Salgado never goes for cheap horror or sentimentality. These are real people caught up in horrible events, struggling to maintain their dignity.
In many ways Salgado is a journalist motivated by his political beliefs: a great deal of these pictures first appeared in reportages commissioned by magazines like Paris Match. But he is also an artist who creates beautiful, stirring images, using light and shadow and unusual framing to extraordinary effect. The best pictures, including shots of Sudanese boys hiding from conscription in the civil war, are magnificent marriages of the personal and the political, of journalism and art. This is an exhibition overflowing with marvels. Cancel that boring work appointment and go marvel for yourself.
Sebastiao Salgado has won virtually every major photographic prize and has twice been named Photographer of the Year by the International Center of Photography. His twin exhibitions Exodes and Les Enfants de l’Exode are on display at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5-7, rue de Fourcy, 4e, Mº Pont-Marie or St-Paul, to Sept 3; open Wed-Sun, 10am to 7pm. A show of portraits and interviews conducted by the photographer is screened every Friday at 6pm in the auditorium, while Salgado himself will be present to answer questions at 6pm on Friday June 23.

"Sans moi"


Desplechin's urban tale of two women targets anglo readers

Would you like a cup of tea? A jellied apricot?” What better place to interview Marie Desplechin than in her chaotic and cosy kitchen, the shelves piled high with spices and lentils, her 4-year-old’s clothes drying over the sink. A lot of her wonderful first novel, “Sans Moi,” takes place in a similar kitchen, where the unnamed narrator takes refuge to cook and tackle her sorrows by drinking vodka from mustard glasses.
Like her novel, Desplechin is charming and straightforward, with a ferocious intelligence cloaked by a gentle modesty and humor. She seems genuinely surprised by the book’s success since it appeared 18 months ago: rave reviews, huge sales, the rights sold in 14 languages including Turkish and Vietnamese, and now an English translation, from British publisher Granta.
The novel tells a simple story, the odd friendship that develops between two women with nothing in common: the narrator and her new babysitter, Olivia. The first is a well-educated single mother with everything going for her: two charming kids, a nice apartment, a lucrative job. The second is a basket case, an abused child who was raped by her foster father, semi-literate, with no skills and a serious drug habit. “Of the prize-winning lineup of liars and addicts life had thrown at me, she took the palm, the laurel wreath, the entire triumphal arch,” the narrator reflects. “It was also clear on the day after we met that I felt as if I’d known her forever.”
Olivia is a mess, but she is also cheery and charming. And the kids love her. The narrator helps her back onto her feet, and we slowly realize that of the two women, Olivia may not be the most in need of help.
It is a very good novel, one of the best I have read in a long time. It is cosy and intimate, a slice of modern city life, acutely observed and full of what the French call les petits riens, the little nothings of daily life, our banal fears and tragedies and search for happiness: “I rolled into a ball, my knees tucked into my stomach. A warm, thick darkness gently rose up inside me. It was sleep coming and I said to myself that it was how I’d like death to be, just like this; gradual, dark and caressing.” And the dialogue is superb. The critics that compared Desplechin to Raymond Carver and Dorthy Parker are not wrong.
Born in Roubaix by the Belgian border, Desplechin moved to Paris at age 18, more than 20 years ago. After studying literature and journalism she worked, like her narrator, as a freelance writer producing corporate communication, brilliantly mocked in the book. She compares it to embalming: “I’d be given a pile of decomposing lies which had to be made presentable by means of a laborious patchwork of generalities, untruths and utterly meaningless phrases. The great skill lay in preserving the appearance of reality while gutting the document of its contents and stuffing it with hay.”
She then started writing children’s books, and later short stories, both of which she could finish in short slabs of time snatched between a full-time job and raising three kids. Her first story collection, Trop Sensible, appeared in 1986, the novel two years later.
What does Sans Moi mean? “It means that we couldn’t find a title!” she giggles. The royal “we” includes her editor, Olivier Cohen, founder of Editions Olivier. “There was a sentence in the book he liked, ‘the world would be a better place without me.’ It means everything and nothing.”
One of the novel’s strengths is its stripped-down, almost minimalist style; there is no padding. “When I start to write, it’s slow, it’s psychological, there are too many words, and it’s completely uninteresting,” she explains. “To turn that into fiction, I need to cut. There are a lot of writers who do the opposite, who develop their stories, but for me it’s le contraire. I need to reduce.”
Her experience writing for children helped, too. “It’s pretty much the same” she says. “I wrote children’s stories where very little happens, it’s just daily life. You have to be simple. You can’t be too clever à la française. Because it doesn’t do you any good to be parodic, or more intelligent than your reader. That’s a characteristic of French literature which is a little irritating, the way the writers feel they have to be clever. It comes from the pleasure of intellectual complicity, of listening to yourself talk. You can’t play that game in children’s books.”
Asked if Olivia is a real person, she says “Of course, it’s a portrait.” And her inspiration never even read the book. “I locked her up with the manuscript, saying I needed her authorization. Afterwards she confessed that she hadn’t read it because she can’t stand reading. Later the book came out on audio tape, and I told her ‘you should at least know what’s in it.’ But I don’t think she’s listened to it. Maybe that suits her best, to not know, maybe it doesn’t give her any pleasure.”
Desplechin has two new children’s books coming out this fall, but is still thinking about her second novel. “I don’t want to do the same thing, it would be too easy. I don’t want to parody myself. I want to do something different, something original. Anyway,” she adds with her husky laugh, “I don’t need to be that rich.”
In the meantime English readers will have to be satisfied with Sans Moi, just launched, and Trop Sensible, which Granta is publishing at the end of the year.

Church gate station
© S Salgado/Amazonas images

Marie Desplechin
© Bruno Garcin-gasser

Marie Desplechin