Soundless Space, Reflections on the Work of Sebastião Salgado

10 EXPOSURES Salgado slide 0 B43 jumbo

Soundless space…

To contemplate a catastrophe is like using the desert’s language. This desert is a soundless space. Man, the one who destroyed the environment, controlled nature, polluted the atmosphere, built cities and ruled over nature’s life. Man himself, came back from his conquests to revive the caveman inside of him. He will chase away what is left in him of natural life. Away from his promised city. As if he was lost in thought within his city, forgetting his forest and desert only paying attention again to participate in the destruction of the pages that make up his inherent values.

A black cloud

The story started at the end of February 1991 when a black cloud spread out between the stars and their image. Voices were silenced after dark forests exploded, followed by black oil and acid rains. Who would have thought that the desert would rain black tears and that all living creatures would be decimated? Who would have thought that this chapter of Earth’s History will still be current news up until today? Today, we are facing a new memory test. A never-ending realistic picture. A new thinking laboratory that asks humanity about what is left of its humaneness.

Lessons of Darkness Werner Herzog

From Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, 1992

I can never forget the documentary shot by the German Werner Herzog in 1992, a sequel to his first movie Fata Morgana that talks about desert hallucinations. Herzog welcomes the desert again as an entity with a certain voice. He left it without any comments, letting the images speak of the second Gulf War after it ended and of the Kuwaiti pipelines on fire. Herzog uses a truck loader to shoot, just like in Fata Morgana and still shots of some workers standing close to the burnt oil. He then uses helicopter shots of the uncovered natural sceneries. Herzog banished comments so that images speak through their documentation, something akin to poetry: workers are described as “creatures”, their behavior controlled by great stupidity with a need to eternalize the damage they are witnessing. The “plot” revolves around the firefighters, when they succeeded in taming the flames, light another fire in the oil’s stream. The commentator says then, “Is life without flames too much to bear for them?” the film starts with a quote from Blaise Pascal, “The Universe’s downfall starts with great festivities.”


This catastrophe is considered one of the biggest catastrophes in the world, whereas the dark clouds that rose from the pipelines’ fires reached Greece to the West and China to the East; while the consequences of these flames reached even farther places. These fires were lit in the Kuwaiti pipelines by the Iraqi army at the end of February 1991 before it withdrew its forces from Kuwait.

​The Iraqi forces destroyed nearly 1073 oil wells by blasting them which led to the burning of 727 wells and causing a dark cloud to cover the skies of Kuwait and neighbouring countries, as well as some Gulf countries and countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. This led to ecological problems and air pollution all over the world.

Politicians’ Chaos

Petroleum import and export was the reason that the Iraqi government used to justify its invasion of Kuwait. Iraq accused Kuwait and the UAE of adjusting the petroleum prices by increasing their production percentage of fuel which led to a drop in fuel prices to 12-10$ a barrel instead of 18$ a barrel. The reason for this drop is the loss of the Iraqi government’s revenues that rely on the petroleum money to pay their debts caused by the Iraqi-Iranian War. Some analysts think that lighting the Kuwaiti oil pipelines on fire was a punishment method taken by the Iraqi government to force Kuwait to increase its petroleum production in spite of the OPEC’s polls that indicate that 10 countries, Iraq included, did not stand by their allotted production. The thing that concurs with the revenge theory in burning and blasting the Kuwaiti petroleum pipelines is the fact that the Iraqi Presidential Guard carefully planned the destruction of petroleum pipelines and electricity and water plants. Iraqi documents show the beginning of these plans being made on August 12, 1990, 10 days before Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The oil pipelines were blasted by using “TNT” dough and 14 tons worth of TNT explosives were used in this operation with 11KG for every well. Sandbags on top of the explosives multiplied the pressure at the top of the well and increased the damage. Cluster bombs were also used along with tank shells to destroy some wells because there was no more TNT to be used, or not being able to get to the well’s top because of planted mines. What was really surprising was that some explosive methods were used to later turn down the fires.


Considering the catastrophe’s scale and the great number of wells on fire, as well as the huge number of bleeding and destroyed oil wells, a team of petroleum experts was created in Kuwait in order to make emergency plans and reorganize the oil production after Kuwait’s liberation in September 1990. The plan theorized that 100 oil wells would have burned as a maximum, and based on this estimate, they consulted with four teams of experts in firefighting oil pipelines: Red Adair, Boots and Coots, Wild Well Control, Safety Boss. They also established plans and estimations with the required timeline for putting off oil pipeline fires from two to five years. However, all burning pipelines were able to be controlled in 240 days with the participation of 27 international teams specialized in firefighting oil pipeline fires. The Kuwaiti team was able to put off 6% of the total pipelines. One of the most recognized contributions of the Kuwaiti team is the faithful engineer Sarah Akbar, the only woman expert in black oil, who earned her stars in putting off the fires. The last well was put off on November 6, 1991, stopping the primary source of pollution at the time.

The Power of an Image

The second story is related to the power of an image, the story of this exhibition being held 25 years after the oil pipelines of Kuwait were put off. It is the story of one the heroes who transmitted this catastrophe to the public. He is none other than the award-winning and economy PhD laureate Sebastião Salgado. This hero starting taking pictures in his thirties but commitment became an obsession for him. His projects that lasted for years have recorded the beautiful side of humans, from the international story that often holds death, destruction or damage. He tells us here the story of how a hobby almost ended his life and shows us breathtaking pictures of his last world, Genesis. This project documents forgotten places and people around the world. For the first time, the Brazilian rainforest son meets the Arabian Desert’s silence during the Gulf War, when the oil pipelines were being put off during the Second Gulf War, as if he were telling us that what he is seeing is not really what is seen. Nevertheless, it is a feeling roaming inside of me through what I am seeing, heroes appearing in pictures as if they were ghosts inside the flames. They were enduring high temperatures and the exaggerated sound of pipeline fires, awful smells, all the while facing the fear of death every second of their time. Billions of dollars were spent on this matter and years of cleaning up the political mess of war.

Son of rainforests

Born in 1944 in Brazil, Sebastião Salgado came from a region filled with rainforests and beautiful rural life. At 25, he moved to a bigger region where he completed his studies, joined the most left political parties at the time, and was an activist. He pursued a master’s degree in economics at university. Actually, one cannot mention Salgado without also mentioning Lélia. Salgado even says that, “She is the most important thing that happened in my life at the time. I met a wonderful girl who became my best friend for life, my partner in everything I do until today, the woman who is now Lélia Wanick Salgado.”

Due to the dictatorship in Brazil, Salgado’s choices were limited, which is why he decided to go to France where arts, life, and universities are plenty; Instead of wasting his life in an armed conflict or immersing himself in poverty and misery that are the result of the political regime in Brazil.

Salgado finished his PhD in France and his girlfriend Lélia became an architect, before photography “invaded his life” as he puts it. He immersed himself in photography and achieved many projects, publishing several books as well. He travelled to Africa many times because of his job in an investment bank. Africa is the place where he took pictures of life, of bloody military struggles, of extreme poverty cases, especially in Rwanda. He almost got very sick because of his total immersion in blood and misery, which turned his life into a living hell. He had to stop due to medical advice and went back home.

When he decided to go back to Brazil, his parents were very old. The rainforest he grew up in was starting to go extinct. This is when he decided to rebuild it, based on his wife’s advice and the help on an expert friend in forest rehabilitation. He realized at once the danger of environment’s destruction and his motherland’s need of these rainforests and decided to go back to photography. This time, it was from an environmental point of view. To present the dangers of the environment diversity destruction as well as the dangers of desertification on humankind and animals. The young rebel didn’t leave his homeland when he chose to emigrate to Paris. He came back, full of a new, wider understanding of life. This is how we can understand him when he said, “My way of taking pictures in my way of life. I take them through my expertise, this is the way I see things.”

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