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A desert on fire, Salgado photographs Kuwait

Photographing one of the world's most tragic environmental disasters. See learning resources here.

Sebastião Salgado, Kuwait, 1991, gelatin silver print, 45.24 × 30.1 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Gary Sato, AC1998.162.1, ©Sebastião Salgado), a Seeing America video speakers: Eve Schillo, Assistant Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper, and we're looking at a large print by the photographer, Sebastiao Salgado. - [Eve] This image is entitled "Kuwait". Salgado was on assignment, documenting what became known as a desert on fire. - [Steven] What we're seeing is not pools of water. We're seeing pools of oil. The men are coated in the oil that they're trying to bring under control. And you can see the force of that oil as it comes out of the Earth. Saddam Hussein, the ruler of the larger, neighboring country of Iraq, invaded the tiny oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait. When it became clear that coalition forces would be driving him out, Hussein's military began to lay explosives in the oil fields of Kuwait, and so hundreds of oil wells were burning. This was one of the world's greatest environmental disasters. - [Eve] This image, in black and white, to me can't even exist as a color image. Salgado has perfected the tonality that is in a black and white image. From the very liquid version of a gray, that is the pools of oil, to the soft, pixelated sky, which is pixelated because it's filled with smoke and haze. - [Steven] The photographer described the atmosphere as Dantesque. He described this as a kind of living hell. And it was a terribly dangerous place. He knew people who had been killed because those lakes of oil would sometimes simply ignite. And because the figures are completely coated in oil, they look like bronze sculptures. They look frozen in time. - [Eve] Salgado's practice involves traveling the globe, documenting these geopolitical actions that affect all of humanity. This was one of the most horrific, mostly because it was left unchecked. The US coalition came in, did its deed, and this was the after effect. And Salgado's often focusing on those push-pull moments, when the environment is made vulnerable. - [Steven] Salgado was originally an economist. Although he's Brazilian, he earned a PhD in economics in Paris, and then at the age of 30, took up photography. And for me at least, that explains to some extent his interest in subjects that really do transform our world. - [Eve] He focused early in his career on those who were working in manual labor around the globe. And he very sympathetically was depicting the honest labor that was still occurring in this mechanized, industrial world. - [Steven] And even here, though we're not looking at poorly-paid laborers, these are some of the very few people on Earth who have the expertise to put out a flaming wellhead, and then to cap that well even though the head had been destroyed. And the photographer's able to give us a sense of the complications of this process, in this single photograph, where in the foreground, we see a gusher, but in the background, beyond lakes of oil, we see wellheads that are still aflame. - [Eve] Until you read that background, this can be read almost as a triumphant image. The worker spouting black oil, but in fact, it's the polar opposite. It's the great humanist struggle, the balance between living on the Earth well and living on the Earth poorly. - [Steven] Salgado is informed by earlier photographers. - [Eve] Lewis Hine comes to mind. He documented the workers who built all the superstructures in New York, but prior to that, he documented the children who were working in factories. And like Salgado, he took a stance. He made his photography effect a change in the world. And his imagery of child laborers eventually changed our labor law in America. And Salgado is that same type of photographer. While the images are fine art, there's also a true purpose to his practice, which is to evoke a change, whether that be policy, politics, or other. - [Steven] What I find interesting about this photograph is what he's left out. We don't see the Iraqi or the American military. We don't see the coalition that pushed out the Iraqi army. What we're seeing is the devastation of the landscape, and the heroism of the men who were working here. (jazzy piano music)