Sebastião Salgado, The End of Polio

While I was searching for Hine’s images of disabled people, I came across the publication The Body At Risk by Carol Squiers, which not only has many of the Hine pictures of child labourers and occupational victims, but also made reference to Salgado’s images of the eradication of poliomyelitis. Although I have looked at Salgado’s work before, and even watched a couple of documentaries on him, I had never even heard of this series of pictures.

Apparently Salgado was invited by the WHO and the vaccine manufacturer Aventis Pasteur to document the manufacture and administering of the vaccine in the remaining 7 countries where the virus still existed (it has now been reduced to just 3: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria). From the UNICEF website Salgado is quoted as saying:

The scale of it caught my attention. Though I had frequently visited most of the countries where polio is still a problem, I had not noticed what a terrible impact this disease still has. I was also not aware of the gigantic effort being made to eradicate it: millions of people delivering drops of polio vaccine to tens of millions of children. It is an amazing story that I wanted to help tell.”

The number of polio cases worldwide has decreased by more than 99 per cent, from 350,000 in 1988 to just over 400 cases in 2013. Salgado said of the campaign he witnessed: “In my work, I have documented terrible atrocities… overwhelmingly caused by humankind… The immense efforts to eradicate polio have renewed my hope, my faith in solutions.”

Although the series is predominantly optimistic, the effects of the debilitating disease also had to be included, and this is where Salgado photographed disabled children, and these are the images that caught my eye in Squiers’ book:

What has happened to Salgado’s signature composition, style and technique? Unlike the crafted images where the polio vaccine is being dispensed, these images don’t have the polished Salgado look or feel to them – I wonder what happened? Perhaps these images were taken as an afterthought – the main idea of the series being to document the eradication of the disease rather than the effects, it was after all sponsored by the producers of the vaccine!

Salgado has said of his own work that he has a Latin American way of seeing that can’t be taught: “I come from an undeveloped country where the social problems are very strong. And so it’s inevitable that my photos reflect that.” (Rolling Stone interview, Dec 1991)

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