ERIC KIM

5 Lessons Sebastião Salgado Has Taught Me About Street Photography

All photos copyrighted by Sebastião Salgado.

I recently saw Sebastião Salgado’s “Genesis” exhibition in Toronto about a year ago, and was blown away by the body of work. It was the most ambitious project I had ever seen– essentially Salgado aimed to photograph the entire world. He photographed people, landscapes, and nature– and did so over 8 years and all around the globe.

When I was in Mumbai (about 3–4 years ago) with my buddy Kaushal Parikh, I stumbled upon his book: “Workers” and was absolutely blown away by the power of the images, the socio-economic/political undertones, as well as the stark black and whites.

I think Sebastião Salgado is one of the most fascinating photographers out there. He started off as an economist, and then turned to photography when he realized that photography had more power than papers to inform people about the world, its issues, and to inspire people to make a difference.

In this article I want to share a little bit of the background and work of Salgado, and share some points of inspiration he has given me (and can also offer you).

How Sebastião Salgado got started in photography

When he was a university student, Sebastião Salgado studied economics in Brazil and got heavily immersed into politics. This was a dangerous time– as there was a military coup in 1964 and another coup in 1968. Students were being tortured and killed, and he was able to leave Brazil for France with Lélia (his wife).

In France he studied for his Ph.D. and worked for a coffee organization that brought him to travel to Africa. On one of his trips to Africa, his wife Lélia gave him a camera (Pentax Spotmatic with a 50mm lens) and it changed his life.

This is what Salgado said how photography transformed his life:

“My pictures gave me 10 times more pleasure than the reports I was working on. To be a photographer was, for me, an incredible way to express myself, an incredible way to the see the world from another point.”

Fortunately through the generous support of Lélia and some of his savings, he returned to Paris in 1973 and took a year to become a professional photographer. He was fortunately able to get assignments from prestigious photo agencies such as Magnum, Sigma, and Gamma.

Since then, he started his own photo agency with his wife (entirely dedicated to his work) titled: “Amazonas Images”. He has produced many books and projects since then, including “The Other Americas”, “Sahel”, “Workers”, “Migrations” and his latest epic work is “Genesis”. For his work, he has traveled to 100+ countries.

Below are some lessons I’ve learned from him:

1. You photograph with all your ideology

“Photography is not objective. It is deeply subjective – my photography is consistent ideologically and ethically with the person I am.” – Sebastião Salgado

One of the fascinating things about Sebastião Salgado’s work is that his work is deeply political, social, and economic in nature. In his project, “Workers” – he photographed all the different horrible working conditions of workers all around the world. For “Genesis” he tried to document the beauty of the planet, in order to inspire people to become informed about the importance of preserving the planet.

To sum up, Sebastião Salgado said:

You photograph with all your ideology.

Therefore know that your photography is deeply influenced by your personal history, the subjects you studied in school, your family, relationships, and the way you see the world.

Sebastião Salgado also encourages photographers to study fields outside of photography to make better-informed images about society:

“You should have a good knowledge of history, of geopolitics, of sociology and anthropology to understand the society that we’re part of and to understand yourself and where you’re from in order to make choices. A lack of this knowledge will be much more limiting than any technical ability.”

When you study topics like history, geopolitics, sociology, and anthropology– you can get a better understanding about society, how humans interact, and therefore end up making deeper images.

Furthermore, Sebastião Salgado doesn’t really believe in “style” in photography. He thinks that a photographers “style” is essentially what is inside them:

“I don’t believe a person has a style. What people have is a way of photographing what is inside them. What is there comes out.”

To continue this point, Sebastião Salgado shares the importance of how photography isn’t just about making images– but for him, it is a way of life:

“…my way of photographing is my way of life. I photograph from my experience, my way of seeing things, and it is very difficult to tell you whether I photograph in one style or another.”

He also expands on how you utilize your own background into your photography– and how photographers can see a scene totally differently (even if they are looking at the same thing):

“But I tell you, for me, each photographer brings his own light from when he was a kid — in this fraction of a second when you freeze reality, you also freeze all this background. You materialize who you are.”

“This is why if you give the same camera to two different people and ask them to shoot the same scene, something different will always emerge. Personality seeps into the mechanism. Magical thinking maybe, but true.”

Ultimately what Sebastião Salgado is trying to do as a photographer isn’t trying to make pretty photographs. Rather, he wants to provoke social change. He wants people to start having discussions about nature and the globe. He describes his purpose below:

“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.”

Takeaway point:

As a street photographer, your primary job is to document people, society, and humanity. You are drawn to people and street photography for one reason or another. But I can bet that you are a humanist. You are interested in people and humanity. You care for people. You are empathetic. You are interested in the lives of others. And you want to tell stories, capture emotions, and connect with these people on the streets.

The ideology or “style” you have in photography should be less about the camera you shoot with, the subject matter you photograph, or whether your shots are in black and white. Your photography should be how you see the world, what is important to you, and what you are trying to say about society through your images.

I think a lot of photographers get discouraged after a while of shooting because they feel that their shooting is purposeless. I know that personally I encounter this feeling all the time. I start to question myself. I ask myself, “What is the purpose of my photography? Why do I shoot? Does this all really matter at the end of the day?”

In university I studied sociology, and that has informed my photography the most. I see myself less as a photographer and more of a sociologist with a camera. The camera is my research tool, and I want to make social commentary and critique through my images.

For example in my “Suits” project, I want to make socio-economic commentary/critique about the stress, anxiety, and pain of working corporate to just make more money, to earn more prestige, and to get more power. I also try to make the project personal, as that is how I felt when I worked corporate.

For my newer “Only in America” project, I want to also touch upon issues of identity, economic decline, and race. I don’t want to just make pretty photographs that people will “like” on social media. I want to make photographs that have meaning and purpose.

So what purpose do you have in your photography? How do you bring your own personal ideology to the table? What did you study in school, and how has it influenced your life? What types of arts, music, or books do you read on the side?

If you studied literature, how does that inform your photography? If you studied economics, how does that inform your photography? If you studied computer-science, how does that inform your photography? If you love music or history, how does that inform your photography?

Think less about making photos– think more about making meaning.

2. Leave your house

“You can sit in your house and be a great writer. But with photography the story is outside the door. You have to go and you have to go far.” – Sebastião Salgado

I have a problem in photography. I get too comfortable at home (when not traveling). I like the comfort of my desk, I like the comfort of the internet, and I like the comfort of not being subjected to the elements (cold and heat).

I also go through dips in motivation. I start looking at cameras online. I feel that buying a new camera will “inspire” me to make better images.

But then I slap myself in the face, and just go outside for a walk. I might drive to an unknown part of town, park, and walk around and shoot. I might jump on the subway and go into the city and explore and shoot.

Then when I start exploring outside of my home, I feel inspired. I then start making images based on what I see– what I react to.

a) Inspiration and shooting

I talk about this a lot, but I don’t think that you should wait until you have “inspiration” before you go out and shoot. Rather, you should go out, and then you will become inspired, then you will shoot.

Here are some other articles that will help you stay inspired and motivated:

  1. 7 Tips How to Stay Motivated in Street Photography
  2. Why Talent is Overrated in Street Photography
  3. How To Discover Interesting Scenes in Your Familiar (thus Boring) Home City?
  4. Systems vs Goals in Street Photography

b) Exploring

As humans, we are thrill-seekers. We hate the monotony of everyday life, and doing the same thing over and over, day in and day out.

We seek adventure. We want to explore. This is why for millennia we have been interested in traveling, and exploring new lands. If it weren’t for our thirst for adventure, we may have never “discovered” all of the beautiful places in the world.

c) Add variety to your schedule

Sebastião Salgado has the convenience of traveling full-time, and seeing hundreds of countries around the world.

Not all of us have that luxury.

But I think regardless of how busy we are, or how much we have to work– there is always ways we can inject randomness and adventure into our everyday lives.

If you drive to work, perhaps take another route that is unfamiliar. If you walk to work, walk another route. Take your camera with you, and photograph what you find interesting along the way.

Rather than just going to work and leaving at the same time each day, perhaps on certain days you will get into work a bit earlier and leave a bit earlier (and shoot after work). Or perhaps you can go into work later, and then leave later (and do some night time street photography).

d) Travel

One of the best investments in terms of money I have made in life is traveling a lot. Traveling has helped me meet some fascinating people, whom have helped open up the world to me.

I have experienced new cultures, which have also informed me to see the world in a unique way.

While I do believe that you can still travel close to home (even an hour car drive from your house can be “exotic”) – travel if you can.

I know I can speak for most Americans– we don’t travel enough. Rather than spending money on traveling, we get suckered by advertising into buying new gadgets, new cameras, new lenses, and new smart devices.

Rather, try to save that money to travel. Studies have shown that happiness can only be “bought” if you spend it on experiences, not stuff.

“The big privilege of photography is to go where you like; you are a free bird, you are alone in this trance. When you really get inside something, that is part of the trance. It is total joy.” – Sebastião Salgado

Here are some articles on traveling and street photography you might enjoy:

  1. On Travel and Street Photography
  2. What I Don’t Do While Traveling
  3. 10 Tips For Traveling and Shooting Street Photography

3. Pursue projects

I feel if you want to become truly fulfilled as a photographer, it is important to work on some sort of “project” in your photography. To simply work on snapping single-images can become a dead-end.

Sebastião Salgado is interested in making stories and narratives, not just single images. He shares his philosophy in the difference between the ways he photographed from single-image shooters (like Henri Cartier-Bresson):

“It is a great honor for me to be compared to Henri Cartier-Bresson, but I believe there is a very big difference in the way we put ourselves inside the stories we photograph. He always strove for the decisive moment as being the most important. I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story. If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don’t work for an individual picture. If I must select one individual picture for a client, it is very difficult for me.”

Sebastião Salgado continues by talking about the importance of working on long-term projects, as they allow you to get to better understand your subjects, a place, and go more in-depth:

“I very much like to work on long-term projects. There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.”

Takeaway point:

When you’re working on a long-term project, it allows you to have more time to get to know a topic or a subject in-depth.

I think a good way of thinking about a photography project is like a friendship or relationship. If you met a person once, could you really get to know the depth of their character, their soul, their personality, and their life story? I doubt it.

Similarly with photography projects– let’s say you want to get to know an area of your town really well. You need to visit that place over and over again, before you start to really understand the place. And the more time you spend in a place, the more time and opportunity you have to get to know the individuals there. You can better understand the light, what time the shadows are the longest, and where the people walk the most.

One of my good friends Rinzi Ruiz prowls Downtown LA like it belongs to him. He constantly prowls the street there, and has gotten to know Downtown LA like the back of his hand. He knows exactly where the light is good, the best neighborhoods to shoot, and when the best time to shoot is.

Sebastião Salgado puts all of his soul, energy, and effort into the projects he pursues. For example, in his last project: “Genesis” – he worked and traveled for 8 years (when he was in his 60’s). He really devoted his entire life to his project.

At the end of the day, the amount of dedication and time you put into your project is personal preference. We all have different goals, ambitions, and hopes for our photography.

If you want to learn more about working on street photography projects, I highly recommend you to read my free e-book: “The Street Photography Project Manual.”

4. On having a relationship with your subjects

“If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.” – Sebastião Salgado

I think every photograph you take is a self-portrait of yourself. You end up photographing others how you would like to be photographed.

There is a lot of discussion about “ethics” when it comes to street photography. It is a discussion that doesn’t have a real “right” or “wrong”. Ultimately as a photographer, you need to photograph others in a way that makes you feel comfortable and honest.

When we photograph people, there is a hidden connection between us (the photographer) and people on the streets (the subject). If it weren’t for this relationship, a photograph couldn’t be made.

For Sebastião Salgado, photography is a two-way street, in which there is an intimate and almost spiritual connection between the photographer and subject. Salgado says poetically:

“It’s not the photographer who makes the picture, but the person being photographed.”

Often as photographers, we put too much emphasis on ourselves. We see ourselves as the principle character, and the subjects as the docile and passive.

Sebastião Salgado says more in-depth about the importance of the relationship you need to have with your subjects:

“The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.

Therefore realize that your photographs will show your relationships with your subjects. If you shoot your subjects from a distance, they will feel distant and cold. If you get close to your subjects, interact with them, and photograph them that way— they will feel more emotionally close and connected.

For his projects, Salgado always tries to live with his subjects and hear their life stories:

“I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

Takeaway point:

The way you shoot street photography is personal. Some of us like not to interact with our subjects. Some of us like to interact with our subjects.

I am not going to say one is “right” or “wrong”. They are just different.

Ultimately we all have different goals in our photography. For me, I am interested more in interacting with people and hearing their life stories than taking good photographs. Of course if I could get both (a good interaction and a good photograph) that is ideal. But if I have a great interaction with my subject but a boring photograph, I don’t mind so much.

But if you want your photographs to feel more intimate— you have to make yourself more vulnerable to your subjects. Photographers who don’t open up to their subjects end up taking emotionally cold images.

I think as street photographers, we generally play the “distant observer” — and prefer not to interact with our subjects.

If you want to make more emotional photographs, and become more confident as a photographer— strive to make deeper connections with your subjects. Start off by just approaching strangers and asking how their day is going. If you have nothing to talk about, you can always talk about the weather. Try to hear their life story. Try to hear what their hobbies are. Try to talk to strangers whenever you can, and the more you do— the more interesting stories you will hear from them, which can lead to interesting opportunities for you to photograph them.

5. Keep shooting until you drop

Sebastião Salgado is currently 71 years old, and shows no signs up giving up photography at all. He shares how “old age” hasn’t stopped his photography:

“When I started Genesis I was 59 and I thought I was an old man,” he says. “But now I am going to be 70 and I feel fine so I am ready to start again. Life is a bicycle: you must keep going forward and you pedal until you drop.

I know a lot of photographers who regret not having started earlier, and other photographers who wished they photographed more when they were younger.

Sebastião Salgado and Lélia Wanick Salgado

But I think being “old” is more of a state of mind and more of an attitude than your objective age.

For example, one of my good friends Jack Simon started shooting street photography in his 60’s. He recently turned 70, and he still prowls the streets of SF like he was in his 20’s. He still has a joyful, jovial, and fun attitude— and pursues his photography both seriously and without too much stress. In the last decade of his shooting, he has created a strong body of work, and a particular vision in color, which is unique.

No matter how “accomplished” you become as a photographer, never stop. Never fall to complacency. Don’t let your ego get to your head, as Salgado explains:

“The biggest danger for a photographer is if they start thinking they are important”.

Takeaway point:

It is uncertain how long we will live. Who knows, maybe tomorrow we might get hit by a bus, we might find out we have some incurable form of cancer, or we might get into a car accident. Life is short and uncertain.

So don’t waste time. Go out and pursue your photography now. Go shoot, and shoot until you drop. There is so much to photograph in the world. Don’t let anything get in your way, and shoot with all of your heart, soul, and being.

Recommended Books by Sebastiao Salgado

1. Genesis ~$47

Genesis” is Sebastiao Salgado’s latest epic work, which really takes you on a journey through the whole world. Highly recommended.

2. Workers ~ $67

Workers” is a truly massive and amazing book by Sebastiao Salgado. It was one of the first black and white books I’ve seen that have truly taken my breath away. A book that is definitely worth the investment.

3. “Sahel” ~ $56

Sahel” is one of Sebastiao Salgado’s most emotional books, in which he photographed the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa in the countries of Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan. If humanitarian photography touches you, this is a book you must have.

If you want more book recommendations, check out my list: “100+ Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own

Recommended Videos on Sebastiao Salgado

1. TED: Sebastião Salgado: The silent drama of photography

2. Sebastião Salgado talks about “Genesis”

3. Hour-Long Sebastiao Salgado Documentary: Sebastiao Salgado The Spectre of Hope (2000)

Learn more from the masters of street photography

If you want to learn more from the masters of street photography, check out these phenomenal photographers for inspiration:

  1. Alec Soth
  2. Alex Webb
  3. Anders Petersen
  4. Andre Kertesz
  5. Bruce Davidson
  6. Bruce Gilden
  7. Daido Moriyama
  8. David Alan Harvey
  9. David Hurn
  10. Diane Arbus
  11. Elliott Erwitt
  12. Eugene Atget
  13. Eugene Smith
  14. Garry Winogrand
  15. Henri Cartier-Bresson
  16. Harry Callahan
  17. Jacob Aue Sobol
  18. Joel Meyerowitz
  19. Joel Sternfeld
  20. Josef Koudelka
  21. Lee Friedlander
  22. Magnum Contact Sheets
  23. Magnum Photographers
  24. Mark Cohen
  25. Martin Parr
  26. Mary Ellen Mark
  27. Robert Frank
  28. Saul Leiter
  29. Stephen Shore
  30. The History of Street Photography
  31. Tony Ray-Jones
  32. Trent Parke
  33. Walker Evans
  34. Weegee
  35. William Eggleston
  36. William Klein
  37. Zoe Strauss

Also you can see more of Sebastiao Salgado’s work on his website here.