Sebastião Salgado and Cultural Capital

by Disphotic

A hypothetical 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.

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Environmental damage attributed by Amazon Watch to the construction of Belo Monte. (Maira Irigaray)

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.

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Belo Monte Dam occupation in 2012. Indigenous people, small farmers, fisherfolk, and local residents removed a strip of earth to restore the Xingu’s natural flow. (Atossa Soltani/Amazon Watch/Spectral Q)

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.

- Lewis Bush

*Since publishing I’ve heard back through Salgado’s Twitter account that he is away working on a story in Brazil, hence the lack of contact.