In 1991, Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado travelled to Kuwait to capture the vicious destruction that erupted across the desert landscape as part of the Gulf War. The fires started as a retaliation after the United States-led coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein’s troops violently reacted by igniting a reported 600 – 700 oil wells and oil-filled areas like trenches and lakes, causing raging fires and billowing black clouds to descend over the region, as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide consumed the atmosphere.
Sabastião travelled to capture the crisis firsthand and document the devastation. His photographs first appeared in The New York Times Magazine in June 1991 and subsequent places since. In a new book by Taschen, the publisher has gathered together Sabastião’s images to create, Sebastião Salgado. Kuwait. A Desert on Fire, the first monograph made of the series.
Told over 208 pages, the photographer powerfully conveys the extreme conditions the oil-drenched firefighters were working against, like sweltering temperatures, air filled with charred sand and soot, the remains of camels adding to the toxic smell and the ground littered with cluster bombs. During Sabastião’s time there, the dangers and daily struggles were constant, with the photographer’s smallest lens becoming warped soon after arriving, as well as more serious instances where another photographer and journalist were killed when an oil slick ignited as they crossed it.
Sabastião shot the series in black and white, which highlights the contrast between the blinding light of the fires and the deep darkness of the oil. His images capture the terrifying conditions and scale of this man-made disaster which took nearly 11 months to extinguish. More importantly, the book serves as a reminder of the relationship and impact humans have on the environment, and the bravery of all those who worked to put the fires out.
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