Photographer Sebastiao Salgado's Inspiration

ByRichard Gizbert

Sept. 9, 2001 -- Sebastiao Salgado has spent the better part of seven years in some of the worst places on earth witnessing the most profound human suffering.

"People come to my camera, to my lens as if they were come [sic] to a microphone, to speak inside the lens," Salgado says. "They want to say what's happened to them."

The subject of the Brazilian photographer's photos are the world's displaced, its refugees. Almost 30 years ago he gave up a promising career as an economist to follow his passion. He has decided to travel to over 40 countries to document the plight of people on the move. The result, a brilliant project entitled Migrations, a collection of images, faces, that continue to haunt him.

"Majority of them probably all of them came from a stable situation," Salgado says. "They had a house. They have a job and in a moment they have nothing. They were pushed out of their homes. They see sometimes their neighbors shot dead."

Salgado's has captured it all — Rwandans fleeing the massacres; Kosovo residents uprooted by ethnic cleansing; boat people in Vietnam, sailing in search of a better life.

"The number of migrants is so big now that there is nothing in comparison," Salgado says. "On this scale, never has it happened."

The cause of the migration can be war, famine, disasters or the widening gap between rich and poor. The result this past decade had been 150 million people on the move — seldom by choice.

"The older people strike my heart," Salgado says. "These people fight all their life for stability, they fight all their life to elevate their families and in a moment they are completely out of this place, no house, no food, no way to live, completely abandoned."

It's this vision and perspective that touches everyone that sees his images.

"The general reaction to his work by the viewing public is one of being kind of overwhelmed by the power, and I mean that word specifically, the power of his pictures," says Willis Hartshorn, the Director of the International Center of Photography in New York.

Images of children in Sudan hiding from armies looking for young recruits. Photos of children in Brazilian orphanages so crowded the play rooms are improvised. There are photos of Vietnam refugees, Afghanistan, Mozambique. These are pictures, Salgado hopes might change things, by changing us.

"My pictures are nothing by themselves," he says. "Alone they are nothing. They just raise the question. We must go to a larger debate and try to see if we get the solution together." He makes it hard to look away.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events