Occasionally, we encounter an image that seems so ludicrously out of kilter with the modern world that we can only flounder in antiquity for appropriate descriptions. We see a black and white photograph that shows a swarm of tiny figures, ant-like in their relentless pursuit of some mysterious purpose around the edges of a dark, cavernous maw, and we say it’s biblical, epic, ancient.

We invoke the building of the pyramids, the Tower of Babel or Dante’s Inferno. Our artistic sensibilities might point us towards the darker paintings of Jan Brueghel the Elder or the apocalyptic waxwork tableaux of Gaetano Zumbo. What we seldom imagine is a 1980s Brazilian gold mine.

Gold, the new book from the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, presents a hefty sequence of these staggering photographs. They were taken in 1986 at the Serra Pelada gold mine, a vast pit of despair and hope that for a decade sucked in gold-thirsty prospectors from across Brazil, a modern day El Dorado that created a handful of millionaires and devastated a landscape.

The Shaft

Salgado’s images record the monumentality of this extraordinary environment, a mountain inverted by shovels to become a monstrous, manmade hole, and the fortitude of the men who worked in those brutal conditions.

A view of Serra Pelada that evokes World War Z.

The biblical aura of the wide images — seething congregations of anonymous, half-stripped men shifting interminable burdens up unfathomable ladders — continues in the iconography of details. One man wears a hat of palm leaves that has frayed into a crown of thorns, another leans against a crucifix-like structure at the lip of the hole: Christ reborn on a Brazilian Golgotha. The effect is strangely humanising, transporting these individuals into a more familiar story.

Salgado stayed at Serra Pelada for 35 days in 1986. Photographing the miners as part of a global project entitled ‘Workers’, his ambition was to record the working class, in all their incarnations, before they ceased to exist.

A modern day El Dorado that created a handful of millionaires and devastated a landscape.

Serra Pelada itself was an old story by the time of Salgado’s visit. The mine had opened in 1979 and, as Salgado remarks when we discuss it, ‘Everyone on this planet had photographed there.’ No other photographer had spent weeks at the hole, though, and the images Salgado produced are, as such, unique. Furthermore, while his predecessors worked in colour Salgado shot in black and white, elevating his pictures to these bewitching symphonies of pattern and rhythm.

His ambition was to record the working class, in all their incarnations, before they ceased to exist.

‘Black and white is my language,’ he explains with a reflective, Portuguese-accented lyricism. ‘For me, it was impossible to photograph another way. When I see a spot of colour, I am 100 per cent sure this spot of colour would be much more important than the personality. With black and white, all becomes greys and there is no more disturbance.’

Monochrome was entirely out of fashion back then. The magazines that Salgado worked for all demanded colour. ‘I did shoot a lot of colour in my life because it was necessary to survive,’ he concedes, ‘but I am not a colour photographer.’

The Serra Pelada photographs, distributed by Magnum in 1987, were published first by the Sunday Times. It was a bold, unexpected leap away from colour, and the critical and public reaction was phenomenal. The images have been credited with singlehandedly introducing a new era of black and white reportage, but Salgado is hesitant about taking credit for the shift. ‘All I can say is that after this I could do assignments in black and white.’ His final colour shoot was that year.

It was a bold, unexpected leap away from colour, and the critical and public reaction was phenomenal.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Salgado operated around the most challenging situations on Earth. He photographed the depths of humanity and while living, often for months at a time, among communities devastated by war and famine, he became preoccupied with recording people existing at the limits of endurance.

His patient, immersive approach resulted in the now-familiar searing and accusatory photographs from African famines, the Balkan wars, the Gulf, Rwanda and the Congo. They are pictures that define the breadth of human suffering at the end of the 20th century. They demand those same bewildered biblical epithets.

Snubbed by Sontag

‘I always wanted to spend a long time on my story,’ he explains. ‘I never wanted to just shoot quickly and come back. You cannot just go there, take nice shots and jump out. Your response must be linked with something, must have some meaning. It becomes your life. It becomes your home.’

This dedication to understanding and dignifying his subjects makes the criticism of Salgado’s work by Susan Sontag, among others, all the more bizarre. Denigrating him as ‘a photographer who specialises in world misery’, Sontag railed against the beauty of his work, the scope of his projects, ‘the sanctimonious … rhetoric that accompanies his exhibitions and books’ and the anonymity of his subjects. It’s quite a charge sheet.

“A photographer who specialises in world misery.”

Salgado’s response is that, as a Brazilian, he lacks the ‘culpability’, as he puts it, which invariably defines an American like Sontag when presented with images of suffering from the developing world.

‘I was born in an underdeveloped country,’ he says. ‘Only in an underdeveloped country is it possible to burn the rainforest like we are now doing. And when I went to Africa to photograph, I photograph my world. I have none of this culpability that Susan Sontag had. I do not make anything more beautiful or ugly. I make it in my language as a photographer.’

“Only in an underdeveloped country is it possible to burn the rainforest like we are now doing.”

Morally culpable or not, his ability to cope with the horrors he witnessed were inevitably tested. In Rwanda, in the mid-1990s, it finally broke.

‘I lost faith,’ he says. ‘I was 100 per cent sure that our species did not deserve to survive because there were so many barbarian things, so much violence. I became sick, and not just sick mentally, my mind was sick, my body was sick. My doctor, my friend, told me it was necessary to stop, just stop, because I was dying.’

Bolsonaro’s Bulldozers

Salvation was found, eventually, back in Brazil. For a while, around the millennium, Salgado largely abandoned photography and began instead to plant trees on his father’s farm. This project, ‘Instituto Terra’, resulted in the successful regeneration of the ecosystem across land that had suffered almost complete deforestation and ecological devastation.

As he observes the rainforest now burning elsewhere, Salgado blames the ‘extremists’ of Bolsonaro’s government for attacking both the Amazon itself and the institutions that seek to protect it.

Another day in the life of the gold mine.

‘You don’t need to destroy the Amazon to develop the Amazon,’ he insists, speaking both as a photographer with an economics doctorate and an environmentalist. ‘It is the old economic model that they are applying there, the same model that destroyed all the environment in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, in many places.’

The Serra Pelada mine project was conceived as an entirely human story. In retrospect, it has become emblematic of an environmental pattern that connects Salgado’s earlier work with his latest projects. But whereas at the mine he recorded the destruction of a landscape, in recent years he has photographed unblemished wilderness, animals and the humans who still exist in equilibrium with their environment.

These journeys have taken him around the world again, to Siberia and the Galapagos, to Antarctica and, for his latest project, ‘Amazonia’, deep into the rainforest. ‘Photography is a way of life,’ Salgado says. ‘You photograph with your ideology.’

Photographing nature has, inadvertently perhaps, put him back on the front line, observing another era-defining ideological and political conflict. He has spent the past seven years documenting an Amazon on the brink of catastrophe and is adamant when he says: ‘We must fight to protect this.’ It’s a challenge of epic proportions.