Salgado’s Desert Hell

More so than any other contemporary photographer, Salgado has come to typify the genre of fine art documentary photography. Renowned for his highly skilled tonality, the chiaroscuro effect of his dramatic black and white images had contributed to the repositioning of photography as ‘high art’. His success undoubtedly issues from both his political insight and distinctive aesthetic that renders the world both beautiful and humbling.

In January and February 1991, as the United States–led coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s army retaliated with an inferno. At some 700 oil wells they ignited vast, raging fires, sending billowing black clouds over the region and thousands of tons of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the desperate efforts to contain and extinguish the fires progressed, Sebastião Salgado travelled to Kuwait to witness the crisis firsthand. The heat was so vicious that Salgado’s smallest lens warped. Travelling with the firefighters, Salgado captured the ravaged landscape, the charred sand and soot, the blistered remains of camels, the sand littered with cluster bombs and smoke soaring to the skies. Widely hailed as Salgado’s most courageous and captivating work, the series was awarded the Oskar Barnack Award, recognising outstanding photography on the relationship between man and the environment. This image is named Desert Hell, and powerfully captures a moment in the two months after the end of the Gulf War, when more the 500 oil wells spewed out roaring tornadoes of flames into the black sky.

Explore More