“I saw in this camp sometimes dying per day 10,000 people,” says Sebastiao Salgado in Paul Carlin’s 2000 documentary The Spectre of Hope. “And it’s difficult to see 10,000 people die. It’s very hard. They were dying because we had not any way to save them.” As he speaks, the Brazilian economist turned award-winning photographer holds a 1994 print depicting a Rwandan refugee dying of cholera at a camp in Zaire. A crowd surrounds the crumpled figure on the bare ground, looking on helplessly.

Salgado’s photos of refugees, migrants, and exiles make a viewer feel a lot like one of those impotent onlookers. Two hundred fifty-six such pictures–shot in 31 different countries–are now on display in the encyclopedic exhibit “Sebastiao Salgado–Migrations: Humanity in Transition” at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Harold Washington Library Center. His eloquent, detailed images chart the movements of the world’s 100 million displaced people and raise confounding questions: Who or what has caused all this motion and the unimaginable misery that accompanies it?

The exhibit is organized into sections like “The Agony of the Kurds” and “The Rwandan Tragedy.” Salgado does more reporting than finger-pointing in his accompanying text, though sometimes an unremarkable photograph, such as one taken in 1997 of a cemetery under a turbulent sky in Taifa, Spain, will bear a remarkable caption: “Communal grave for unidentified illegal immigrants who were victims of storms in the Strait of Gibraltar,” reads the text. “So many Africans seeking work in Spain drown en route that a burial site is dedicated to ‘the bodies washed ashore.'”

Salgado, who lives in Paris and sees himself as a migrant as well, has been documenting the lives of the poor and dispossessed for 30 years. Such extensive exposure to the effects of famine, genocide, and war has left him profoundly pessimistic about the state of the world. “The dinosaurs were stronger than us,” he remarked after a February 2002 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. “They lived about 150 million years ago, they lived for a while, and they’re gone. And probably, if we don’t pay attention, we will end that way too.” Of the possibility that his images might help stop global suffering, he says, “I don’t believe that they are powerful….The photographs alone are nothing.”

“Sebastiao Salgado–Migrations: Humanity in Transition” and “The Children,” his related series of large-format portraits of young refugees, are up in the Cultural Center’s Exhibit Hall and Sidney R. Yates Gallery, 78 E. Washington, and in the Harold Washington Library Center’s Main Gallery, 400 S. State, through September 28. Call 312-744-6630 for more information.

On Friday, September 12, Salgado will sign copies of the books that accompany each exhibit from noon to 1 at the Cultural Center. It’s free. At 2 PM on Sunday, September 14, he’ll give a lecture on his work in the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan (enter on Columbus). Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at www.ticketmaster.com, by calling 312-575-8000, or in person at the museum; proceeds from the lecture benefit Salgado’s foundation, Instituto Terra, which supports economic preservation, reforestation, and sustainable development initiatives in Brazil.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.