The Spectre of Hope

Africa by Sebastiao Salgado
In a profound documentary on globalisation, John Berger discusses the work of economist-turned-photographer Sebastião Salgado.

It was in a film class that I was introduced to ‘The Spectre of Hope’, four to five years ago. A teacher, tiring of our capitalist ways, promised that it would be an eye-opener. So we waited in the audio-video room, our eyes ready for an opening.

A 2002 documentary/conversation, between art critic and BBC presenter John Berger, and economist-turned-photographer Sebastião Salgado’s book ‘Migrations: Humanity in Transition”. The setting is Berger’s own house, amidst the impossibly picturesque backdrop of the Swiss alps. It’s a conversation, captured on camera.

What followed, was a curious case of a medium within a medium. Being media students, we were reminded constantly of Marshall McLuhan’s adage “medium is the message”.

So it is in this case. The Spectre of Hope can be timely and thought-provoking, irrespective of where you watch it. But the backdrop against which you do, matters.

Fernando Frazão/ Agência Brasil (Image: Creative Commons)

Salgado’s photographs document people, migrants mostly, as they travel endlessly, seeking a better tomorrow. As Berger describes Salgado’s work:

Everywhere he went, he found people on the move, looking for somewhere, some way, to feed their children. During these years, the economist who became a photographer, took pictures of the face of globalization.

The photographs, presented in black and white, overlaid with an eerie soundtrack, will not present globalization in the traditional light – of trade figures, numbers skyrocketing upwards, men in suits coordinating global empires. Indeed, there are no photographs of corporations here. Only of people – displaced, suffering, yet presented nobly.

The photographs speak for themselves, but Berger manages to do justice even when silence would be an apt response. How does one comment on a photograph of death – of bodies carried in the trough of a bulldozer, in the wake of a largely preventable cholera epidemic in the Congo – without coming across as intellectualizing? As Salgado remarks, “It’s very hard to see ten thousand people die”.

Berger’s most memorable explanation in the film, is the following:

One feels in your vision, the word – Yes. Not that you approve of that, but that you say yes because it exists. Of course, you hope that you will provoke, with the people who look at this picture, a No.

Fernando Frazão/ Agência Brasil

Berger, an art critic and TV presenter, is most famous for his work ‘Ways of Seeing’ – a 1972 TV-series on the ideologies behind the audio-visual image. He is aware, that images are annotated by their packaging, and throughout The Spectre of Hope, he packages Salgado’s work with poetic commentaries on why we live our lives the way we do – against the unseen background of immense human suffering.

In many of Salgado’s photographs, his subjects peer into the camera – wondering, posing a question, to those who lie on the other side. There is often no explanation presented for their situation, so as a viewer you might wonder – how does globalization relate to this? Berger, views their existence as a question. “They are looking at the camera, and they know that they are looking at the world. And so they address a question – what are you?”

Some argue that globalization is on its death throes today. As Salgado’s introduction to the book reads:

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.

For those who suffer, with no solution in sight, the sky is all they can turn to. In many of Salgado’s photos, the sky is a part of the story, its dark clouds seeming to swoop down on those below – yet, pierced through by a ray of sunlight.

Berger observes this in Salgado’s photographs, and comments:

People who have lost all sense of tragedy simply look at these skies and say ‘Ah, what a beautiful set, what a beautiful décor this is. What a well-chosen moment.’ But it isn’t a question of that. The sky is the only thing that can be appealed to, in certain circumstances. Who listens to them in the sky? Perhaps God, perhaps the dead… perhaps even history.

Twelve years since the release of Migrations, and its subject matter remains relevant. It is not necessarily about globalization, and the link to capitalism is necessarily imposed by the commentary. But replace Kosovo with Syria, Congo with Zimbabwe, Rwanda with Sudan, and you have a work that depicts the human condition. The Spectre of Hope is a provocative look into the soul of our world, and will make you reflect on how we are to view photographs of poverty, destruction, death but ultimately, hope.


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