Friday, June 12, 2015

Artists Light the Path

Since my post on, "5 Flights Up," I have been ruminating on whether artists really make a difference in our world today. 

In a addition to enriching and inspiring our lives, artists make a difference by casting light on humanity. In, “The Salt of the Earth,” Win Wenders trains his camera on the Brazilian social photographer Sabastiao Salgado and his art.  

“A photographer is literally someone drawing with light. A man (or woman) writing and rewriting the work with light and shadows.”

Wenders took up this project because he was profoundly moved by Sabastiao’s haunting photographs and how they capture the light and shadows of humanity.  Sabastiao Salgado felt called to shine a light on the human faces of some of the most extreme historical tragedies (famine, genocide, slavery) of the last 40 years. Supported by his wife Lélia, he dedicated his life to traveling the globe as a witness to the slave conditions in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines, famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda (among others.)  His harrowingly beautiful photographs called worldwide attention to some of the most horrific atrocities of mankind.

What makes this documentary even more poignant is that it was co-directed by Sabastiao Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado.  While Sabastiao’s wife encouraged him to follow his path, his son was left without a father.  By working on this film, Juliano grew to understand the importance of his father’s work.

But witnessing all that suffering eventually took its toll on Sabastiao.  Deeply wounded by the degree of human cruelty and bloodshed in Rwanda, Sabastiao was forced to give up his mission. But instead of defeating this courageous man; it inspired a revolutionary new path.  Returning to his family farm, he found that drought had savaged the land. What had once been a lush rain-forest, had become a stark desert.

His wife Lélia suggested that they try to replant the paradise that he had known as a child.  They cultivated a new way to reinvigorate the barren land. They successfully planted 100,000 native trees and other vegetation and eventually brought back the rain-forest!

Sabastiao Salgado journeyed the world – just to find his mission in his own back yard.

 Lélia and Sabastiao Salgado's farm today.
Another social photographer, Lisa Kristine, has taken up the lantern and is casting light on the human face of slavery.  Working with Free the Slaves, Lisa braved hell on earth to witness and document the lives of modern day slaves. At TEDx Maui, she shared her devastating photos and stories.  I was shocked to find that there are currently over 27 million people enslaved – double the number of people taken from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Families have been enslaved for generations for debts as low as $18. Many have been enslaved so long that they don’t know they are slaves. It was all they have ever known.

In the brick kilns of India and Nepal, whole families work 16 hours in scorching heat without water or restroom breaks. They essentially live in ovens. While photographing the kilns, Lisa’s camera stopped working. To revive it, she had to give it air-conditioned breaks. She recognized the sad irony that her camera was treated better than these people. In another part of India, families are enslaved in the silk trade. It is their job to dip their hands into the toxic dye. One father said that they hoped to someday to have their own silk business, so they could get paid for “dyeing.” In the Himalayas, children carry huge slates of stone on their backs. On Lake Volta, children are forced to work all night untangling heavy fishing nets petrified that they will topple their little fishing boats and drown because they can’t swim.  In Ghana, mothers carry their babies as they pan for gold while wading in water poisoned with mercury.  In Kathmandu, women and children experience violent abuse as sex slaves. In our own backyard, as many as 300,000 American children have been sold into the sex industry.

As a representative of Free the Slaves, Lisa descended a narrow mine shaft alongside men with tuberculosis and mercury poisoning forced to work 72 hours in the dark.  In addition to the torturous conditions, she found hope piercing the darkness like mine lanterns. Manuru, who had inherited his uncle’s debt, valiantly worked with tuberculosis and an infected leg. Free the Slaves has given him hope that one day he will be freed and receive an education.

Lisa felt humbled by these people’s quiet dignity and endurance.  “This sort of determination in the face of unimaginable odds fills me with complete awe. I want to shine a light on slavery.  I told the workers that I wanted to illuminate their stories and their plight. (That) we will be bearing witness to them. We will do whatever we can to make a difference in their lives. If we can see each other as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery. I hope these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you, and I hope that force will ignite a fire and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light the beast of bondage will continue to live in the shadows.”

Dorothea Lange lit the way for these social photographers.

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

From 1935-39, Dorothea Lange's photographs brought the plight of the poor and forgotten (sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers) to public attention.

These courageous artists light a path through the darkness. Do they make a difference? That depends on whether we take up the lantern.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Note: On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS News aired the Edward R. Morrow documentary, "Harvest of Shame" showing the deplorable conditions our migrant farm workers faced. Recently, I watched the documentary, "Food Chains" and was shocked to find that those desperate conditions still prevail today. But I was also inspired by the tomato pickers courageous fight for fair wages and treatment.

1 comment:

Jana Stormont said...

Unfortunately, media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought National Geographic, a brilliant magazine that documented human suffering with photographs. This is also a tragedy because he is outspoken climate change denier.