Every photographer brings their preconceived ideas to a project. If one is photographing poverty, for example, there already exists a societal concept for what poverty looks like. That concept is translated to the imagery and, in turn, the viewer is presented with a confirmation that, indeed, poverty looks like a broken man waiting in a breadline or a begging woman with disheveled children behind her. Sebastiao Salgado effectively breaks away from those prejudices. He shows the viewer what it feels like to be impoverished, from within the circle of a community. He doesn’t simply illustrate the obvious and confront the viewer with graphic photographs. Salgado’s images relate to the viewer and the imagery asks the question: What if that was me?
Documentary work is, all too often, an exercise in critical observation from an outsider’s perspective. The viewer observes the ‘other.’ Salgado’s photographs, on the other hand, have an intimacy to them. It isn’t just the closeness, such as his pictures of Brazilian gold miners (see fig. 1), that draw the viewer into the frame. There exists an apparent, and mutual, relationship between artist and muse. The work is from within the social circle or society Salgado is photographing. His pictures exist in contrast to the work of someone like Cartier-Bresson, who captured the ‘decisive moment’ of a community or group. Cartier-Bresson was witnessing history, whereas Salgado is living it. He is inside the group, “photographing from within, not without.” 
Salgado isn’t as much an activist as he is a messenger. The work is his life, not just a part of it. He lives with those he photographs and shares their experiences, while simultaneously documenting them. Indeed, Workers took him just shy of a decade to complete and he travelled across 23 countries and every continent but one.  The subtitle of the book, An Archeology of the Industrial Age, has its own implications of time and study. The magnitude of his work in Brazil, photographing gold mining operations, is on the scale of an epic drama. Salgado has said about the experience, [I’m photographing] “the history of mankind unfolding before me.” 
No academic or personal background is better suited than Salgado’s to explore the plight of the world’s working class. Salgado began his adult life as an economist for the World Bank, before making a life decision to pursue art. His academic background made him aware of global economies. His frequent trips to Africa, for the World Bank, exposed him to what he viewed as the driving force of the human condition…the worker. The emotion on the face of the sulfur miner in Indonesia, for example, where simple hand tools are used to mine sulfur deposits, helps keep the global economy moving. Every soul plays a part in this larger ecosphere of economics, and Salgado understands that environment better than anyone.
It is clear that Salgado feels the emotions of his subjects. There is sadness in these images of workers. The picture of firefighters covered in Arabian oil, standing in awe, though barely able to stand from exhaustion, is an image that functions as a mirror into the human soul. The viewer recognizes the dignity in these men. Salgado’s photographs have a certainty to them. There exists no hesitation, and the viewer can’t help but realize that these photographs were taken at the exact second that they were supposed to be. Each photographer has a different way of seeing the world, and that vision is shaped by one’s history.  However, much of that tension that occurs, from the time light enters the lens and falls onto the film plane simply evaporates in Salgado’s images. The symbiotic relationship he has, with those he photographs, is what elevates his pictures above the preconceived photojournalistic style that the public has become so accustomed to.
The challenge for a social documentary photographer is to separate oneself from his own internal prejudices. Prejudices often become exposed even when the best intentions are intended. Photography becomes a process of automation, yielding to one’s preconceived ideologies. By trying so hard to maintain objectivity the artist has forgotten his own philosophical ideals. While that automated work may fall in line with what the public is accustomed to, it is hardly engaging, challenging or avant-garde imagery. My personal challenges aren’t much different than that of any other artist: maintain an objective viewpoint while introducing subjective philosophical principles that create avant-garde work. This remains the challenge for every prudent documentarian. Sebastiao Salgado has often made this approach look easy, but that is his gift, which he shares with the world.
 Salgado, Sebastiao. Interview by Fred Ritchin. The Photographer as Activist. UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism 6 Nov. 2008.
 Salgado, Sebastiao. Workers. Aperture Press: New York City, 1993.
 The Salt of the Earth. Directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Salgado. Sony Classic Pictures, 2014. Film.
 See The Salt of the Earth.