Jan 202011

Sebastiao Salgado & Fred Ritchin

Entering the Circle

Approaching people for the first

time can be intimidating.  Our

anxieties are usually greater than

the real situation.  Sebastião Salgado,

an economics student turned

photographer, discusses his ideas

about “Entering the circle.”  Once

inside you are no longer take

pictures of people, they give them

to you.

Serra Pelada, State of Para, Brazil by Sebastiao Salgado (1986)

On The Shoulders Of Giants

Listening to a photographer, in their own words, can reveal the philosophies they built over a lifetime of successful projects.  Unlike a finished documentary, they speak candidly about their beliefs and the reasons they make certain decisions.

Sebastiao Salgado started as an economics student.  Born in Brazil, he spent his collegiate years in Paris, where he accidentally picked up his girlfriend’s Leica.  This started his life as a photographer, otherwise he says he might have been a farmer like his father.  He went on to document the working conditions of diamond miners in Brazil, ship breakers in India, and sugar cane harvests in Cuba.  Combining his background in economics with photography, his pictures, which were too controversial to be published for nearly twenty years, are now part of the canon on how humans treat one another.

In this interview, which I warn you is quite long, in conversation with writer Fred Ritchin, he explains the natural connection with the people in his images.  His message, to an audience of journalism students, is useful to anyone from professional photographer to a tourist leaving the country for the first time.

There is a lengthy introduction with images from a number of photographers, so to make it easier here are a few highlights with the time in the interview.  You can skip around, but like me, you might end up watching the entire piece (a few times).


Pictures Too Depressing
Time ( 23:00 )

  • Sebastião’s work on famine in the Sahel (Africa ) was actually considered by American publications to be too depressing.  One, shirt and tie, editor actually cried at his desk after reviewing the pictures, but said he would not be able to publish them.

Entering the Circle: If there is one clip to watch, its this one.
Time ( 37:12 )
Excerpt from Fred Ritchin:

  • “Sebastião had a theory that I wrote about in his Uncertain Grace book which is, there is a circle, and there are some photographers who photograph the tangent of the circle when they photograph other people. Its like a Cartier-Bresson who is brilliant at that kind of choreographed decisive moment and rhythm of life.  There are circles and he takes the tangent that 1/125th of a second and Sebastião’s point (and its always interesting to quote someone who is sitting next to you) was you have to enter that circle.”

Sharing The Same Space
Time ( 38:30 )
Excerpt from Ritchin:

  • “You can’t look at the person as the other, but you must share the same psychological,  cultural, emotional, philosophical, spiritual space as much as you can.”

Unable To Speak English
Time ( 39:30 )

  • “Sebastião was assigned to shoot Ronald Reagan before he knew how to speak english.  He showed up after shooting a job on the “Killing of Kangaroos in Australia” so he was wearing work boots and a safari jacket.”

Shooting Animals
Time ( 45:30 )

  • Sebastião uses the term “people” when discussing his new project shooting animals called Genesis.  His respect for a living beings elevates them from distant creatures to humans.

Additional points in the Interview

  • Shooting a project for 18 months is not considered a long project.
  • Genesis will take over ten years to shoot.  It will explore what the globe was like before we spoiled it.
  • Sebastiao was arrested and dragged off in handcuffs while shooting miners in Brazil.
  • A trip to Coney Island NY.
  • “I believe there is a way you come to people, that in the end you have to photograph them and the people feel comfortable that you are photographing them also.” -Sebastião Salgado
  • He laments the loss of BW film choices.
  • He has zero interest in ever shooting digital pictures.

Sebastiao Salgado Portrait By Sean Gallup


This interview is like learning photography in many ways.  It is long, occasionally tedious, but under the surface there is a collection of profound ideas that can shift our perception.  The world is not a big, scary place of “other” people.  It is a tricky place to negotiate, but well intended visitors are often welcome.  Their visits change the way we all view the world, which is a profound cultural contribution.

Good photography, which may happen in a fraction of a second, is the result of months, sometime years of investment.  Sebastião’s accomplishments have come with patience and humility.  He takes the time to learn about his subjects, live inside their circles, and emerges to expose images that we are missing everyday.

Sebastiao Salgado’s Leica M7 Titanium, 90mm Summicron f 2.0, 50mm Summilux f 1.4, and 35mm Summicron f 2.0.

For more information of Sebastiao Salgado’s work please find them at the following websites.

Time Magazine Website

Unicef Foundation: Salgado Gallery

Sebastiao’s Salgado’s Instituto Terra

Books by Salgado

Sahel: The End of the Road (Series in Contemporary Photography, 3)

Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age


Fred Ritchin a professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and founded the website Pixel Press.


After Photography

  2 Responses to “Sebastião Salgado & Fred Ritchin”

  1. […] I first heard Salgado and Ritchen speak at Berkley University, they discussed the way Salgado is quick to make his subjects feel […]

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