Arbus, Salgado and Signs

Correlations between Sebastião Salgado and Diane Arbus

In his essay ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’ John Mraz criticizes Salgado’s book ‘Other Americas’ for adopting a point of view that negates any sense of identification with his subjects in favour of a general Western idea of third world poverty. Mraz says of this book that Salgado is “obsessed with death”, and that this concentration, together with a lack of accompanying captions, has the cumulative effect of dehumanizing his subjects. They begin to act as only codes, signs to indicate the despair associated with life in Latin America.

In her essay ‘America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’ Susan Sontag discusses the work of Diane Arbus in a similar fashion. Sontag is highly critical of Arbus’ approach to her subjects, seeing them as unfortunate victims, but “without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve”(Sontag,1979:33). She then describes Arbus’ photographs as saying much more about the photographer herself than any of her subject. Although the subjects are themselves individuals – albeit outsiders and freaks – Sontag says “what is finally most troubling in Arbus’ photographs is not their subject at all but the cumulative impression of the photographer’s consciousness”(Sontag,1979:40).

I don’t mean at all to suggest any direct comparison between Arbus and Salgado but the way that the works in question are discussed by Mraz and Sontag is relevant. Both discuss their subjects in terms of how the signs present in the photographers’ works can be read. It may well be that the interpretation that Mraz applies to ‘Other Americas’ was deliberate, if perhaps inappropriate. It is arguable that Arbus was not intending her work as a form of self-revelation at all, but that is how Sontag sees it. In both cases the cumulative effect of signs in the works in question becomes much more than the sum of the individual photographs.

Mraz, J. (2002) Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America. Vol. 16. In: Third Text. Directed by Mraz, J. (s.l.). pp.15–30.
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. (New Ed edition) (s.l.): Penguin.

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