Sebastião Salgado went to 40 countries in six years to be among the world’s migrants and refugees so that he could tell visual stories of their difficult journeys as they leave their homes for places and lives unknown to them. "Many were going through the worst periods of their lives," he writes in the introduction of this collection of photographs entitled, "Migrations," published in 2000. "They were frightened, uncomfortable and humiliated. Yet they allowed themselves to be photographed, I believe, because they wanted their plight to be made known. When I could, I explained to them that this was my purpose. Many just stood before my camera and addressed it as they might a microphone." What follows are excerpts from Salgado’s introductory words and then several photographs from this collection.
The experience changed me profoundly. When I began this project, I was fairly used to working in difficult situations. I felt my political beliefs offered answers to many problems. I truly believed that humanity was evolving in a positive direction. I was unprepared for what followed. What I learned about human nature and the world we live in made me deeply apprehensive about the future.
True, there were many heartening occasions. I encountered dignity, compassion and hope in situations where one would have expected anger and bitterness. I met people who had lost everything but were still willing to trust a stranger. I came to feel the greatest admiration for people who risked everything, including their lives, to improve their destiny. I found it astonishing how human beings can adapt to the direst circumstances.
Yet if survival is our strongest instinct, all too often I found it expressed as hate, violence and greed. The massacres I saw in Africa and Latin America and the ethnic cleansing in Europe left me wondering whether humans will ever tame their darkest instincts.
I also came to understand, as never before, how everything that happens on earth is connected. We are all affected by the widening gap between rich and poor, by the availability of information, by population growth in the Third World, by the mechanization of agriculture, by rampant urbanization, by destruction of the environment, by nationalistic, ethnic and religious bigotry. The people wrenched from their homes are simply the most visible victims of a global convulsion entirely of our own making.
In that sense, "Migrations" also tells a story of our times. Its photographs capture tragic, dramatic and heroic moments in individual lives. Taken together, they form a troubling image of our world at the turn of the millennium.
People have always migrated, but something different is happening now. For me, this worldwide population upheaval represents a change of historic significance. We are undergoing a revolution in the way we live, produce, communicate and travel. Most of the world’s inhabitants are now urban. We have become one world: In distant corners of the globe, people are being displaced for essentially the same reasons.
In Latin America, Africa and Asia, rural poverty has prompted hundreds of millions of peasants to abandon the countryside. And they crowd into gargantuan, barely inhabitable cities that also have much in common. Entire populations have moved for political reasons as well. Millions have fled Communist regimes. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe then freed many more to seek out new lives. Now, with the imposition of a new world political order, ethnic and religious conflicts are spawning armies of refugees and displaced persons. Many of these are becoming urbanized by the very experience of living in refugee camps. …
Everywhere I have traveled, the impact of the information revolution could be felt. Barely a half-century ago, the world could say it "did not know" about the Holocaust. Today, information — or at least the illusion of information — isavailable to everyone. Yet the consequences of "knowing" are not always predictable. Television informed the world of the massacres in Rwanda or the mass expulsions of Bosnians, Serbs and Kosovars almost as they were taking place, but these horrors nonetheless continued. On the other hand, North Africans can watch French television, Mexicans can watch American television, Albanians can watch Italian television, and Vietnamese can watch CNN or the BBC. The demonstration of conspicuous consumption is such that they can hardly be faulted for dreaming of migration. …
Refugees and displaced persons, unlike migrants, are not dreaming of different lives. They are usually ordinary people — "innocent civilians" in the language of diplomats — going about their lives as farmers or students or housewives until their fates are violently altered by repression or war. Suddenly, along with losing their homes, jobs and perhaps even some loved ones, they are stripped even of their identity. They become people on the run, faces on television footage or in photographs, numbers in refugee camps, long lines awaiting food handouts. It is a cruel contract: In exchange for survival, they must surrender their dignity.
They are also rarely able to put their lives together again, or at least not as before. Some become permanent refugees, permanent camp-dwellers, like the Palestinians in Lebanon. Their lives acquire a certain stability but, as victims of politics, they remain vulnerable to politics. Some can go home, but choose not to, having built alternative lives that offer more security. Others who do eventually return to their countries have become different people, perhaps more politicized, certainly more urbanized.
But no matter what their final destiny is, all are forced to live with what they have learned about human nature. They have seen friends and relatives tortured, murdered or "disappeared," they have cowered in basements as their towns have been shelled, they have seen their homes burned to the ground. I would watch children laughing and playing soccer in refugee camps and wonder what hidden wounds they carried inside them. All too often, refugees have little to say in the political, ethnic or religious conflicts that degrade into atrocities. How can they be consoled when they have seen humanity at its worst? …
It could be said that the photographs in this book show only the dark side of humanity. But some points of light can be spotted in the global gloom. For example, humanitarian agencies are able to work among destitute refugees and migrants around the world thanks to the contributions of ordinary people. It could also be argued that Western public opinion spurred NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo because of the emotional impact of television pictures of burning villages and massacre sites. And yet in Rwanda, the West saw the killings and did nothing to stop them. Today, good and evil are inseparable because we know about both.
But is it enough simply to be informed? Are we condemned to be largely spectators? Can we affect the course of events?
I have no answers, but I believe that some answers must exist, thathumanity is capable of understanding, even controlling, the political, economic and social forces that we have set loose across the globe. Can we claim "compassion fatigue" when we show no sign of consumption fatigue? Are we to do nothing in face of the steady deterioration of our habitat, whether in cities or in nature? Are we to remain indifferent as the values of rich and poor countries alike deepen the divisions of our societies? We cannot.
My hope is that, as individuals, as groups, as societies, we can pause and reflect on the human condition at the turn of the millennium. The dominant ideologies of the 20th century — communism and capitalism — have largely failed us. Globalization is presented to us as a reality, but not as a solution. Even freedom cannot alone address our problems without being tempered by responsibility, order, awareness. In its rawest form, individualism remains a prescription for catastrophe. We have to create a new regimen of coexistence.
More than ever, I feel that the human race is one. There are differences of color, language, culture and opportunities, but people’s feelings and reactions are alike. People flee wars to escape death, they migrate to improve their fortunes, they build new lives on foreign lands, they adapt to extreme hardship. Everywhere, the individual survival instinct rules. Yet as a race, we seem bent on self-destruction.
Perhaps that is where our reflection should begin: that our survival is threatened. The new millennium is only a date in the calendar of one of the great religions, but it can serve as the occasion for taking stock. We hold the key to humanity’s future, but for that we must understand the present. These photographs show part of this present. We cannot afford to look away.
With billions of dollars of foreign investment during the 1990’s, Vietnam began a period of rapid urbanization. This inevitably has stimulated migration to cities where, as always, the construction industry is the main employer for unqualified labor. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 1995. © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas/Contact Press Images.
Tijuana stretches eight miles east from the sea. In coastal cities, the population is usually concentrated near the sea, but in Tijuana growth has tended to follow the border with the United States. This is because illegal migrants who are caught by the Border Patrol and returned to Mexico often set up temporary homes — no more than shacks — within view of the border. Some eventually succeed in entering the United States; others find work in Tijuana and settle, a few decide to try their luck farther east by crossing the mountains or deserts of California and Arizona. Tijuana, Mexico. 1997.
In the region of Kivu, from Bukavu to Goma, roads are filled with people heading for refugee camps. Sometimes they pass several camps before finding one where they can stay. In just a few days at the end of July, more than one million people crossed the border into Zaire (today Democratic Republic of the Congo) and camped in and around Goma. This is the road between the camps at Kibumba and Munigi, Zaire. 1994.
With their men away in the cities, women carry their goods to the market of Chimbote. Most migrants head for Ecuador’s mountain capital, Quito, or for the coastal city of Guayaquil, provoking rapid growth of slum areas in these centers. For example, Guayaquil, which has over two million inhabitants, saw its population grow by 200,000 between October 1997 and September 1998. Many Ecuadorians have also left the country. The Quito daily, Diario el Comercio, has estimated that one million Ecuadorians reside in the area of New York, with another 150,000 living in Spain; many are also in Canada. Region of Chimborazo, Ecuador. 1998.
In July 1994, around 245,000 Rwandan Hutu fled into Burundi. Moving in the opposite direction were tens of thousands of Rwandan Tutsi, returning to their country after 40 years of exile in Burundi. Most Hutu settled close to the Rwanda border in the region of Ngozi, in northern Burundi, quickly filling refugee camps organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Belgian branch of Médecins Sans Frontires. These camps were peaceful until late March 1995 when ethnic troubles erupted in Burundi. … [O]n March 31, 1995, Tanzania closed its border with Burundi to prevent another huge influx of Rwandan refugees (it had already taken in some 600,000). These fleeing refugees had already walked 25 miles, but they were stopped and a precarious new refugee camp was founded. Most of the refugees were still hopeful that the border would soon reopen. Burundi. 1995.
About 40,000 refugees are trapped in the village of Lula, four miles from Kisangani. They were blocked by [rebel leader Joseph] Kabila’s forces as they moved towards Kisangani in the hope of receiving food, medical assistance, and United Nations protection. This photograph was taken along the railroad track near Lula. Many refugees, particularly children, are in dire shape. Some humanitarian agencies are nonetheless able to reach them with emergency medical assistance. Zaire.