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The Spark and the Tear

Sebastião Salgado visited Africa during both the days of tears and the time of the spark. He witnessed dramatic events, the unfolding of a tragedy and also the first glimmer of hope. He spent time in my country and in Angola and was able to record the earliest steps on the path to liberty, in the wake of five centuries of colonial rule. When Sebastião Salgado asked me to write about these photographs, I accepted with the enthusiasm of a teenager. I already knew all about the brilliance of the Brazilian photographer’s work. I have his books at home and they lured me into resuming my travels.

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The Africa revealed here is an example of hope won by force of arms, the troubled birth of an age emerging from the womb of time

For three decades, the territory known as Southern Africa was caught unawares by Sebastião Salgado. The Africa revealed here is an example of hope won by force of arms, the troubled birth of an age emerging from the womb of time. The overthrow of apartheid, the collapse of the colonial regimes, the victorious guerrilla war, the promise of a new start: that is what Sebastião Salgado’s lens has captured, revealing that after the mourning comes the struggle, after the darkness come the seeds of dawn, pathways heading towards a new future.

Some of these images relate specifically to my own country, Mozambique, and illustrate moments of euphoria which I lived through. The hoisting of new flags in the constellation of Africa opened up, at that time, a chink of light and heralded the end of the cycle of suffering. That promise was smashed to fragments in Angola and Mozambique as they subsequently spiralled downward into civil wars. But once again, with the advent of peace, hope was rekindled. Sebastião Salgado captured on film the return of the exiled farmers and the symbolic moment when the women set ablaze their temporary homes in the country where they had taken refuge. On the journey home, it was not only the Zambezi River that those women crossed, they also traversed their own destiny and looked out anew over the land which awaited their vital intervention, just as clay awaits the potter’s hands.

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He caught all of us, Africans and non- Africans, recording our grand achievements and our many sorrows. We’re here, all of us, making a statement via these portraits

We look at these photographs as we would at a window, seeing through it an infinite number of horizons which vacillate between being inside us and outside of us. Photographers in Africa are fundamentally distinguished by the way they catch time unawares. Forever chasing instants in time, they come to understand that there is a whole eternity out there. Ironically, the photographer himself is ultimately caught unawares by time. A circular time, coiled round like a serpent biting its own tail. For Salgado, Africa was more a journey than a destination. The Brazilian did not so much visit places but was a traveler through the medium of ordinary people. It was not only those caught in Salgado’s lens who were cap- tured for posterity. He caught all of us, Africans and non- Africans, recording our grand achievements and our many sorrows.We’re here, all of us, making a statement via these portraits.We entered the lens, were developed in the darkroom and were then revealed in our entirety. Journeying through the diversity of the Sahel, the Great Lakes and Southern Africa, Salgado happened upon many different conditions, all found within a continent which is not really one but many continents. He was witness to mankind squaring up to the geography of the Sahel and man at war with himself in the Great Lakes, and he caught a glimpse of the seeds of hope being sown as nations were healing in the aftermath of violence, as happened in southern Africa.

In short, Salgado revealed conflicts and illusions from a time of transition in a continent searching for its own image. He recorded history as it happened, not in its slow and lazy march through time but as it advanced in a series of abrupt lurches, each one a spectacle exposing the human soul.