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The End of Polio: A Global Effort to End a Disease photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, with a foreword by Kofi A. Anan, an essay by Siddharth Dube, and texts by Mark Dennis, Christine McNab, Carole Naggar, Katja Schemionek and Chris Zimmerman. Bullfinch Press, 2003, 159 pp. $40.00 hardcover, $24.95 paperback. .


Luminous photos, lousy text

A review by Anne Finger

I first saw a photograph from this book in the New York Times. I stashed the folded-up section of the paper in my canvas tote bag; all that day, I kept pulling it out to show friends; calling people and saying, "Do you get the Times?...Look at the picture on page 4 in the Science section... Isn't it wonderful?" (In this book, the photograph appears on pages 106-107.)

The photos are luminous. But the text resurrects every hackneyed, sentimental trope about disability.

Outside a school in New Delhi, children--nearly all of whom have had polio, the caption tells us--are shown. About a dozen of them are seated on a bench--a few look withdrawn, one or two have their backs to the camera--but the rest are horsing around, laughing.

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado thus violates one of the cardinal tenets of disability representation: that we are solitary, individual.

And then he goes on to violate the second tenet: that our lives are essentially over, that we exist as markers of a narrative that has already happened. Instead, we can imagine all kinds of futures for these kids: that the pensive boy in the background will grow up to be a poet--or perhaps a software engineer; that the laughing girl at the center of the photo, grabbing her friend's nose, will become a theater director or a professor of literature who lectures to packed classrooms and always has a line of students outside her office door. Perhaps the girl with her back to the camera is the rival of the one with her hair in braids, perhaps the unseen expression on her face is saying to her coterie behind her: Bharati is so childish! with all the righteousness about maturity a twelve-year-old can muster.

Perhaps the boy at the edge of frame with the serious expression on his face wants to be a photographer himself, and is wondering how he can get up the nerve to tell Senõr Salgado this. Whatever the stories of these children are, disability is a part of them, but not their end.

Salgado is one of the world's most prominent photographers. Here, he is documenting the UN's efforts to bring about the global eradication of polio. And here, as elsewhere, he turns his eye on the breadth of a social situation, never neglecting either the individual or the broader processes which that individual is a part of. And he never dehumanizes his subjects, turning them into objects of pity. Beyond the delight of seeing disabled people so richly portrayed, there are any number of photographs that are remarkable for their beauty and honesty.

In one haunting photograph, the entire population of a cattle camp in Sudan walks out to meet a team that has come to administer vaccine, palm trees looming over them, their feet raising a haze of dust: they photograph has an eerie magic. In another photograph, taken in Pakistan in 2001, in a village near the Afghan border, a child, in the arms of a man I assume to be his father, is being administered the oral vaccine. Everyone in the photograph stares at the camera: the one being vaccinated with a look of curiosity, an older child with a look of suspicion, the man with a look of sadness and mixed with wariness and resignation: a narrative of the region's history seems to be unfolding on their faces.

Forget the text of this book. It resurrects every hackneyed, sentimental trope about disability. From the dedication: "To all those who courageously live with polio...to all the health workers who so lovingly help them while working to eliminate the disease." And then on to the foreword by Kofi Anan, Secretary General of the United Nations: "Winsome girls in wheelchairs. A boy, his legs paralyzed, hurrying to a football match on his hands and knees. As Sebastiao Salgado's luminous photographs attest, there are few more heartbreaking illustrations of the world's negligence towards children than polio."

And then we have "anguish," "piteous," "brave," "nightmare," "harrowing," "agony," "excruciating," "decimated," "damage," "cheerful," "suffering," "horrific," and, of course, "overcome."

Kofi Anan's right about one thing. Salgado's work is luminuous.

Posted March 8, 2004

Anne Finger is president of the Society for Disability Studies.

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