A desert on fire, Salgado in Kuwait

Photographing one of the world's most tragic environmental disasters

Sebastião Salgado, Kuwait, 1991, gelatin silver print, 45.24 × 30.1 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Gary Sato, AC1998.162.1, ©Sebastião Salgado), a Seeing America video, speakers: Eve Schillo, Assistant Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Steven Zucker

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Salgado, Kuwait

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Key points

  • In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein led an invasion of its oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. An international coalition, led by the United States, forced his withdrawal in February 1991. As Iraqi troops fled, they were ordered to set fire to 605 oil wells, causing one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.
  • Photographer Sebastião Salgado documents geopolitical actions that have widespread impact; during this crisis, he was on assignment in Kuwait and captured an image of the dangerous labor required to extinguish these fires and cap the oil wells. He described the scene as a living hell, as these workers were surrounded by flammable pools of oil and endless fields of fire in the aftermath of the war.
  • While this photograph conveys the hazards and labors of these highly-skilled workers, Salgado uses a range of sensuous tonalities to create a work of fine art. Coated in oil, the men look like bronze sculptures, frozen in time. Trained as an economist, Salgado’s work often features labor and aims to inspire political action.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Gulf War

Listen to oral histories from soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War

Read more about the environmental impact of the Gulf War

See satellite images of the oil spill

Read about a documentary film made about Sebastião Salgado

Read an interview with Sebastião Salgado about his work

Read an article in Smithsonian Magazine that highlights Sebastião Salgado’s environmental activism

Sebastião Salgado’s official website

More to think about

In this work, Salgado creates a strikingly beautiful image of a devastating environmental tragedy. Why do you think he might have chosen such a visually-appealing presentation? Does this help the photograph to have a greater effect on society and bring about change? Why or why not?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.