Sight of Grace
Brazil 1980 | Ethiopia 1984 | Mali 1985 | Korem 1984 | Brazil 1983
about us | about Sebastião Salgado | about the book | discussion | links | home

 

Analysis

More Information

Main Page

Ethiopia
Health
Analysis
Reflections

 

When reading Sebastião Salgado's book, An Uncertain Grace, I came across many pictures of starvation, poverty, violence, destruction, and, yes, even joy and devotion.  Devotion is the theme of this photograph.  You can see the weariness in the woman’s eyes, yet she puts the welfare of her child before her own needs.  Salgado is attempting to say something with his photographs—he has a meaning within each of them that he wants us all to understand.  However, in order to fully understand this meaning, we must first understand just how Salgado composed this picture to completely convey his message. 

In order to help me fully understand how to analyze this photograph, I needed to get research from the experts in photography--Kodak.  Fortunately for me, Kodak has an entire portion of their web-site devoted to taking better pictures--www.kodak.com/global/en/consumer/pictureTaking/index.shtml.  I went to this site and learned that the two most important aspects of a photograph to look at when analyzing it are the lighting and the composition.  

Let’s look first at the lighting.  You can see in the background the existing light shining on the woman and her child.  Existing light is the light in a place that is already available to the photographer, without the use of a flash or additional lighting equipment.  Existing light is considered to be any of this kind of light that is of a lower light level than sunlight outside would be.  Existing light includes fluorescent lights (that are already there), sunlight (when indoors), and lowlight such as dawn or dusk (when outdoors).  In this picture, Salgado uses indoor sunlight to help light his subjects.  Kodak says that using existing light gives photographs not only a more realistic appearance, but it also captures the mood of the interior, because the subjects are lit by natural lighting.  So, existing light works very well for Salgado in this picture, because it portrays the melancholy mood of the place.  And, because the picture is given a more realistic appearance, the woman and her child become real people to us rather than just another picture on the page. 

The composition of a picture does not mean that a picture has been set up by a photographer.  In fact, Kodak says that the best pictures are usually the ones where the subjects may be unaware that they are even being photographed, because the photographer can then capture the reality of the scene.  Whether this mother knew or not is irrelevant, though.  In this case, all Salgado had to do to change the composition of his photograph was move the camera to a different position or angle, even move in closer or back away.  The composition of the picture is what makes up the picture itself.  There are many aspects of composition: the center of interest, the background, close-ups, lines, and framing the subject. 

The center of interest in the picture is obviously the mother and her child.  When looking at your center of interest, you can have a secondary subject somewhere in the picture, but make sure that it does not detract from the main subject.  In this case, there is a figure in back of the woman, but this figure is not in focus, and so cannot take away focus from the mother and child.  Another thing usually considered with the center of interest is not putting them in the center of the picture.  Generally, this makes the picture fixed and uninteresting.  Most photographers live by the rule of thirds: divide the scene into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and put the center of interest at one of the four places the lines intersect.  However, in this case, the picture is a close-up, so it is difficult to avoid putting the woman in the center.  But, if you use the rule of thirds on this picture, you will see that both the mother and child’s heads are at the intersections.  This draws our attention to their faces, which is exactly what Salgado wants us looking at.  In this case, though, their bodies may also be something that Salgado wants noticed.  Also, simply by catching her in that moment of breast-feeding her child gives us a shared experience with the woman--people everywhere feed their children.

If the background is too cluttered, it will detract from the subject of the picture.  Photographers make sure that there is nothing in the background of their pictures that does not relate to the subject itself.  In this picture, part of the background is in darkness and the other half is in light.  In the dark part, we cannot see anything anyways, and in the light part, the figure is too unfocused to really make out any details.  However, the figure relates to the subject, because we know from the caption that this is the children’s ward of a refugee camp--we would expect to see other people there.

Moving in close on the subject can really help with the meaning of a photograph.  Close-ups suggest a feeling of intimacy to the viewer, and center your attention on the main subject.  In this picture a close-up is the perfect choice, because Salgado wants us to feel intimate with the subject, especially in such a seemingly private moment.  Having a feeling of intimacy with the subject helps us to identify with her in ways we never could, in a situation we could never fathom otherwise.

Having lines within a photograph helps direct attention to the subject.  In this picture, there are three main lines that I see, pulling our attention to the woman and child.  The first is the black, vertical line above the woman’s head.  It drags our focus down to her face.  The second is the arm of the figure in the background.  It pulls our attention down towards the child.  And, the third is on the woman herself.  It is the line of the cloth on her head, which drops to the right, meeting the v-line of the front of her shirt, and drawing our vision from her face to the face of her child.  These lines all work very well to draw the picture together and keep our focus on the subject.

Finally, there is the framing of the subject.  This does not mean an actual frame you would put the picture in.  It means some kind of frame within the picture that puts the subject in the middle of it, once again drawing the audience’s eyes to that center of interest.  In this case, there is no definitive frame.  However, I believe that Salgado has framed them with the halo of light that they seem bathed in.  It surrounds the mother and child’s heads, framing their faces, and keeping our attention focused on them. 

www.caa.org.au/travel/tours/ethiopia.html

This photograph is a stark contrast to Salgado's picture.  While both are of a mother and her child, this photograph seems more like a snapshot.  Although this photographer also used natural lighting, he did not use existing light.  So, this picture is deprived of the realistic appearance which Salgado's photograph possesses.  As to the composition of this picture: these people obviously knew that they were being photographed.  This picture does not capture the reality of the scene.  The mother and child are clearly the center of interest, but if you use the rule of thirds, you will see that, while her right eye is at an intersection, that is it.  This makes the photograph somewhat static.  Kodak says that if the background is too cluttered, it will detract from the center of interest, and this background is very chaotic.  Also, with a person cut off on the left side of the picture, it draws our focus to that person and away from the center of interest.  The scarf around this woman's head actually pulls our focus down to the bottom of the picture.  And since that side of the scarf dominates the left side of the picture, and the other side of the scarf fades into the background, that side of the scarf, which could have pulled our focus to the baby, is ineffective.  So, while both Salgado's photograph and this picture are of a mother and her child, Salgado's photograph has much more meaning within it and is more real to its viewers, because of its composition.  

This is how I analyzed Salgado's photograph, and I believe that it brings us to a greater understanding of what Salgado wants us to take away from looking at it.  The way the mother is holding her child is reminiscent of many paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus when he was a baby.  And Salgado has bathed her in light that gives her and the child halos.  Mary has always been depicted as travel-weary, but carrying on for the sake of her son, and just like the story of the flight to Bethlehem, these are Refugees from a place where they, too, have been persecuted.  So, if Salgado intended this religious imagery (which I believe he did), what message is he trying to convey?  Why did he choose this mother and child?  Well, that is up to each individual person who looks at this picture to decide for themselves.   But, I do believe that, despite the religious images in the picture, the most important message that Salgado wants us to take away from looking at this photograph goes along with the title of the book: An Uncertain Grace.  There is an uncertain grace to the way this mother sits there, wearied by the trials she faces every day.  She must be exhausted, but still she provides her child with nourishment, because she knows that this is what her child needs to survive in an already harsh world.