Writing on photography

Sebastião Salgado and Cultural Capital

A conversation I’ve often had with photographer friends goes a bit like this: ‘what would you do if a company you disagreed with on a fundamental ethical level offered to sponsor your work?’ With this question in mind I was a little surprised to see that Sebastião Salgado’s current exhibition Genesis, a visual extravaganza of unspoiled natural spaces, rare species and indigenous people, is sponsored by Vale. Vale is a Brazilian mining corporation that in 2012 was voted the worst company for human rights and environmental credentials in an annual competition held by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration and sometimes dubbed ‘the Nobel prize of shame’. Japan’s Tepco, operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, came second.

Besides numerous mining interests in South America and Africa, Vale also owns a 9% stake in the Belo Monte Dam, a much criticised project instigated in the 1980s by Brazil’s then military government. According to Amazon Watch the dam will displace twenty to forty thousand people and potentially threatens one and a half thousand square kilometers of bio-diverse jungle. All this seems at odds with Salgado’s exhibition with its consistent themes of environmentalism and conservation.

Of course accepting sponsorship from a company that you might disagree with could be a way to try and enact some sort of change. A way to draw it into debate over the issues you feel are important, and hopefully lead that company to more responsible behaviour in the future. But on the other hand accepting this sort of sponsorship runs the risk that it will turn your work into little more than a cheap public relations exercise, lending credibility to corporations which ought, at every opportunity, to be exposed and held publicly accountable.

Hans Haacke, who’s art and writing have long critiqued the relationship between cultural institutions and large corporations, argues that sponsorship is rarely about altruism and always about exchange. It is ‘an exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored.’ According to Haacke, symbolic capital represents or results in public good will, corporate recognition, and a favourable political atmosphere for the activities of the sponsor. He also notes that the tax deductible nature of cultural donations means that paying museum visitors are often in effect subsidising tax breaks for the corporations who donate.

Museum sponsorship has been a relatively hot topic in recent years, with institutions including Tate Modern and the National Gallery coming under fire for their corporate relationships. I contacted London’s Natural History Museum, who are hosting the show, to see if they had a take on it and whether they have a formal policy on what companies they accept sponsorship from, given it’s a museum with a much touted history of environmental conservation.

The museum’s stance was rather predictably non-specific, I won’t reprint everything as it’s quite lengthy, but I’m happy to forward the e-mails in full to anyone interested. The gist was that ‘In accepting the sponsorship, the Museum acknowledges both Vale’s positive commitment to sustainability initiatives through the Vale Fund for Sustainable Development and as well as negative publicity surrounding their work.’. In other words, they’re aware of Vale’s record. I also tried to get in touch with Salgado himself but without success.*

In the end the question of accepting sponsorship comes down to what an individual photographer considers compatible with their work, but that decision is one that they will inevitably be judged on. I’ve only ever found one answer to my opening question that I’ve felt particularly comfortable with. That if a company I disagreed with offered me money I would only accept it if I could think of a way to spend every penny making work that would expose exactly what I disliked about them. That as far as possible I would make sure they were investing in their own unmasking.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Very important and often overlooked question!

    Suppose, it is up to each photographer (and, indeed, each person) to decide if it’s more important for his/her work to make a difference or money.

    Brings to mind the issue with Ron Haviv’s images used by Lockheed Martin last year…

    Practically speaking, I can understand that refusing support from ‘evil companies’ might mean that the work will never be accomplished. Yet, if the very purpose of the work is to expose their faults, the whole process looses its journalistic merit and become selfish and shallow.

    • Thanks Tina, totally agree that is a moral judgement for each of us to make. I also thought of the Ron Haviv case but didn’t make the comparison because it was unclear there whether he had made the sale or an agent. The tricky thing for Salgado I suppose is he has a name for doing such epic (and therefore expensive) projects, imagine the money that must go into a project like Genesis compared to what most photographers invest in their personal projects? Not only means sponsorship is vital, but it’s got to be pretty affluent sponsors as well I imagine.

  • Hi! I just wanted to make a little correction about the text. As we explain in our website, more than 40 thousand people will displaced by Belo Monte; but they are not indigenous. They are traditional people and city people that live there. Indigenous communities although highly affected won’t be displaced. Thanks!

  • The bitter irony is that I’ve become aware of the sponsorship of the Vale Corporation only towards the end of the exhibition when I filled a questionnaire with a promise of some “prizes.” The last question in the survey was something like “Were you aware who sponsored the exhibition?” to which I answered “no.” Obviously, the question triggered my interest and I went to look for the name of the sponsor which I later googled only to find out its environmental and human rights shameful record. Had I known about it before I would not have gone to the exhibition, nor would I pay money to the Museum. I find this “green wash” practice highly dubious if not ethically repugnant. Furthermore, I think that there are other ethical issues involved with the exhibition and the photographs themselves that go even beyond the sponsorship issue. The indigenous people in these photographs recall the iconography of the “noble savage” and invoke what is known as “salvation anthropology,” the white man’s fetishistic desire to preserve these “human species” in their “uncontaminated” state. In addition I think that some of the photographs cater to Eurocentric voyeurism and perpetuate the idea of the “indigenous” as the unchangeable barbarian. Even the sublime photographs of virginal landscapes where no human presence is registered are problematic, because there is not even one image which shows their fragility or the potential destruction that would befall on them by multinational corporations such as the Vale Mining Company. The exhibition does not involve any attempt to challenge such corporations or even to engage in some kind of productive dialogue with them (if such an option exists…). To put it bluntly, Salgado took the money and ran away out of reach in the vast landscapes of Brazil.

    I should also mention in this context the film Avatar and Cameron’s position vis a vis the Belo Monte project. Perhaps the most publicized reading of Avatar as an environmental cautionary tale which was suggested and endorsed by Cameron himself is when he said in Brasilia, Brazil, that a real-life “Avatar” battle is playing out in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, where indigenous groups are trying to halt the construction of a huge hydroelectric project in Belo Monte. “I’m drawn into a situation where a real-life ‘Avatar’ confrontation is in progress,” Cameron said. “What’s happening in ‘Avatar’ is happening in Brazil and places like India and China, where traditional villages are displaced by big infrastructure projects,” he added.

    Yosefa Loshitzky

  • I just wanted to mention that I wrote the above piece before reading your first comment on the exhibition. I think that it is brilliant and apologies for repeating some of the issues that you raised in the earlier comment.

  • We have the exhibition in town, and it is getting pretty hard to decide whether go or not. I casually read the sponsorship and was really troubled (Vale has one of their administrative headquarters in the region). And the question crossed a lot of other minds… Thank you for sharing your points of view, and to promote the debate.

    • I’d say go and make your own mind up about the work and what it shows and how that relates to Vale.

      But yes it is troubling, particularly as (at least here) you have to pay for a ticket in order to view what is basically a form of corporate PR. Thanks for commenting, glad the discussion is still going on.

  • Hi there,
    I want to purchase the book and attend the exhibition; which at this time next year will be here in Barcelona.

    I was struck to find that such a company sponsored Salgado, however (and thankfully) only indirectly through the museum and just the exhibition

    Curiously enough, I found that Gas Natural Fenosa; a Spanish energy company but not as dismal as Vale, is holding an exhibition on their own premises (they have their own museum) by Takeshi Shikama on Forests. Large format Pt/pd prints!
    It’s near where I study so I will go, wouldn’t miss the chance to see real LF and pt/pd prints.

    It is all obviously a way to show “nice manners” by these companies and clear the reputation of their activites.

    I think it shouldn’t stop anyone to view Salgado’s work as thankfully it (seemingly) wasn’t a direct endorsement. I see Salgado’s message in a very powerful environmentalist way (the TED talk) and I think he wouldn’t like to be seen as such an hypocrite… So I like to think it is just the museum and exhibition.
    Anyways, next year it’s coming over here and I’ll see it with my own eyes, so I will be able to have a much stronger opinion on it.

Writing on photography