The Gulf War was perhaps the first war of its kind. Never before had a war been televised live. Such was the rolling coverage of the event, at times the conflict went even further and took on the sheen of a Hollywood blockbuster. The central antagonist Saddam Hussein was billed as a super villain who had to be taken down at any cost. Many came to suspect that the exercise was designed to demonstrate the power of the West. However, the consequences of the conflict were all too real. This was perhaps summed up best in one recurring scene, and it’s that scene that is the subject of this new book by Sebastiao Salgado.
In 1991, as part of their scorched-earth campaign (a policy of destroying anything that may be useful to the enemy) the Iraqi military set fire to around 700 oil wells in Kuwait. The fires were so intense that firefighters took ten months to extinguish the flames. It also meant that roughly six million barrels of oil were lost each day. You can see why this would have been a viable target for Iraq. The burning oil fields, outrageous as they undoubtedly were, are equally stunning to behold in both film and the still image. Salgado was there to document this event and, typically, succeeded in creating images that were both terrifying and hypnotic.
The conditions he faced were about as fierce as it could get. The heat was so intense one of his lenses warped. However, the images he came back with are some of the most incredible ever taken in the theatre of war. The columns of fire are so large as to be beyond belief. Look at any number of images of footage of erupting volcanoes and you’re somewhere close to the spectacle of this event.
As with all of Salgado’s work, the images are in stark black & white, meaning we have more than a straight documentary work. What we find instead are a series of images that grab us with its aesthetic mastery before drilling the message home that yes, this did happen, and yes, it was devastating.
Previous volumes by Salgado have shown the endurance and beauty in humanity. This one perhaps stands apart in its ability to demonstrate that he’s not a photographer impervious to our shortcomings, particularly when it’s on the battlefield.
SCORE: 5 out of 5
Published by Taschen
Price £44.99, 208 pages, hardback