Nick Hackworth

Sebastiao Salgado, Barbican

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Sebastiao Salgado is a hero. Whether they like it or not, all artists ultimately conform to one of two types; those who practise art for art’s sake and those who use art to engage with and, hopefully, improve the world.

Salgado is the epitome of the latter. One of the greatest ever socially engaged photographers, the Brazilian, now 58, has spent much of the past three decades working for the major photo agencies depicting the lives of the world’s poor and dispossessed, producing images for both the media and his own projects that argue for social change.

This exhibition, Salgado’s first major show in London in almost 10 years, brings together 350 photographs, taken between 1993 and 1999 in more than 40 countries throughout Asia, Africa, central Europe and Latin America. They have been thematically grouped to depict famine, war, environmental decline, urban poverty, rural disaster, the recent explosive growth of cities in Asia and the plight of refugees and economic migrants worldwide.

Salgado’s body of work, however, elevates itself above mere reportage by dint of its unremitting emotional intensity, its beauty, its didactic aims and its sheer quantity, which speaks of the dedication of its creator and creates an overwhelming cumulative impact greater than the sum of its parts.

The images themselves are as diverse as humanity; every one could inspire an essay. In one a Rwandan refugee lies dying of cholera in a camp in Zaire, surrounded at a slight distance, by a traumatised crowd. I have never seen an image of man who seems more alone.

In another, a line of Ecuadorian women travel to their local market across landscape of incredible grandeur. While in another — an image that transcends descriptive clichés of beauty and could have been plucked straight from the imagination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez — some young Yanomami Indian children play on the banks of the Amazon, the air around them thick with butterflies.

Salgado, then, is not simply a messenger of doom; his work shows life as it is for the vast majority of the world, both in its beauty and its pain, but his political argument is clear none the less. For his ability to communicate his message so powerfully and purely in an age long since jaded, and in which politics is so hamfistedly treated by contemporary artists, Salgado deserves the highest praise.

Until 1 June. Information: 020 7638 8891