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 Salgados 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
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 lExode 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.
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-olds
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 books 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 Id known
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 Id 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: Id 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 childrens 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
What does Sans Moi mean? It means that we couldnt 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 novels strengths is its stripped-down, almost minimalist
style; there is no padding. When I start to write, its slow,
its psychological, there are too many words, and its 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 its le contraire. I need to reduce.
Her experience writing for children helped, too. Its pretty
much the same she says. I wrote childrens stories where very
little happens, its just daily life. You have to be simple. You
cant be too clever à la française. Because it doesnt do you
any good to be parodic, or more intelligent than your reader.
Thats 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 cant play that game in childrens books.
Asked if Olivia is a real person, she says Of course, its 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 hadnt read it because she cant
stand reading. Later the book came out on audio tape, and I told
her you should at least know whats in it. But I dont think
shes listened to it. Maybe that suits her best, to not know,
maybe it doesnt give her any pleasure.
Desplechin has two new childrens books coming out this fall,
but is still thinking about her second novel. I dont want to
do the same thing, it would be too easy. I dont want to parody
myself. I want to do something different, something original.
Anyway, she adds with her husky laugh, I dont need to be that
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.