Photographer chronicles

by Andrew Donohue

On the walls that line the second floor of Morrill Hall hang about 20 photographs of what is being called the last great resistance movement in the world.
The photographs are part of an exhibit named “Terra,” which documents the landless struggle that has plagued the Brazilian countryside for decades. The Terra collection features images from the camera of award-winning photojournalist and Brazilian native Sebasti÷o Salgado, as well as lyrics from popular Brazilian singer Chico Buarque.
Salgado’s work has been displayed on an international level, with exhibits in the United States, Europe, Brazil, China and Japan. The photographer raked in numerous awards for his work during the 1980s and 1990s, including two lifetime achievement awards and Photojournalist of the Year by The International Center of Photography in New York in 1986 and 1988.
With an economics degree from S÷o Paulo University, Salgado worked as an economist in the Brazilian Ministry of Finance before becoming a freelance photographer in 1973.
He currently runs his own company, Amazonas Images, which operates out of Paris.
Salgado returned to his homeland to tell the story of the landless people and their fight against relocation to the cities.
Exhibit pictures, along with Buarque’s lyrics and words from esteemed Brazilian writer Jose Saramago are also compiled in the book “Terra: Struggle of the Landless.”
“Together, they are creating a poetics of the poor and oppressed,” said Fernando Arenas, University professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies.
The exhibit is dedicated by Salgado “to the thousands of landless Brazilian families who survive in makeshift encampments along the highways, struggling and hoping one day to win a piece of land on which they can be productive and live in dignity.”
The plague of landless agricultural workers has increased rapidly over the past three decades. Thirty million rural jobs and several small land-holdings were lost in that time.
“The issues of land tenancy have been haunting Brazil since the colonial times,” Arenas said.
In order to keep the power of the country in the hands of just a few members of the aristocracy, a Portuguese king gave out hundreds of millions of acres to a selected few.
Currently, of the 980 million acres suitable for agricultural use and development, only 150 million are used for growing grain. The land remains under the ownership of the upper class and is generally thought of as a future investment or protection against inflation.
As the more than 800 million acres lie fallow, hundreds of thousands of farming families wander the countryside in search of land to farm. They live a life of poverty, with only two dim choices: to search for land or flock to the cities.
Those who stay are led by the Landless Movement, fighting for a portion of the millions of farmable acres that go untouched.
They set up makeshift camps, living for months at a time outside the gates of the land that could provide them with life. Often the agrarian revolutionaries are met with military force.
On April 17, 1996, the revolutionaries were met with such a fate. Peasants blocking a roadway in protest found themselves the target of gunfire from 155 military policeman.
After the fire had ceased, 19 landless farmers were dead and another 57 wounded.
Salgado, armed with his camera, was with the brigade of peasants who transported and buried the dead.
His photographs capture both the images of the event, and the feelings of those involved, three of which are in the exhibit on campus. One shows a truck leaving town on a highway, with caskets piled high in the back and buses of peasants riding alongside.
Another picture shows the funeral, with thousands of grief-stricken mourners converging on the caskets.
A third picture tells a story of personal anguish, as a mother of a victim sits in a lawn chair, inconsolable by the crowd that surrounds her.
Taken in 1983 and 1996, the pictures in Salgado’s exhibit illustrate the class struggle that is tearing Brazil apart. The photographs from 1983 show little hope: Children playing with animal bones, families searching for nourishment in the roots of cacti and the weathered faces of the elderly who have fought the battle since their youth.
The more recent photographs provide hints of both hope and hurt. While some display the growing force of the movement with images of peasants storming the land they will soon own, others still capture the emotionless faces of children forced to endure poverty because of their country’s great class divide.
The families that head to the cities sometimes fight an even grimmer war.
One Salgado photograph captures the struggle of one family forced to abandon their rural life for the uncertainties of the city. The family of five walks down a deserted highway with only barren land surrounding them. They carry all of their belongings in a few sacks that balance on their heads or shoulders, as their futures rest in the overpopulated city.
“The people are pushed off of the land toward the cities,” said Malcolm McNee, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “The cities are not prepared to handle it, with problems of social organization and population growth.”
McNee is focusing his master’s thesis on the Landless Movement. His research began two years ago went he visited Bahia, Brazil.
“I became interested in the fact that this is the largest social movement in Latin America and the most successful,” McNee said. “I had never heard about it until I came to Brazil, where there was coverage everyday in the newspapers.
“I think it is fantastic photography,” McNee said. “We in the United States have a certain image of Brazil. This is a side we don’t see much: The countryside, the working conditions and the energy of the movement were captured through his photography.”
The exhibit is co-sponsored by the La Raza Student Cultural Center and the Office of the Associate Vice President for Multicultural Affairs. Officials chose Morrill Hall because of limited availability in local galleries and because it is also home to the multicultural office.
In correlation with the exhibit, a talk by Daniel Correia will be held on Saturday at Coffman Union. Correia is the leader of the Landless Workers Movement in Rio Grande do Sul, the most active state in the movement.