Documentary, Photobooks

Sebastião Salgado’s shots of a burning Kuwait, 1991

The Brazilian photographer's shocking images of Kuwait's devastated oilfields have now been published as a book

In early 1991, Brazilian photographer and environmentalist Sebastião Salgado travelled to Kuwait to photograph the burning oil fields left behind by Saddam Hussein’s retreating army. The inferno, involving some 700 wells and an unspecified number of oil-filled low-lying areas, was one of the worst environmental disasters in living memory.

Salgado’s series captures the desperate efforts to contain and extinguish the flames, and details the profound physical strain placed on both the rescue teams and the photographer.

“You see how hard the conditions were – after they had controlled the fire, a crane brings down the new head of the well, and this guy must put the screws, and fix the head here,” said Salgado at a recent book signing in Brussels. “That was hell because the pressure was so high and you had oil coming from every part.

“I made exactly 200 rolls of film in 40 days, I lost a lot of pictures because walking close to the fire was very hot. Sometimes it provoked a fire inside my camera that destroyed all the pictures. But what impressed me was this apocalyptical light.

“In all my long life, I never again found this kind of light – it was a Dantesque night.”

Kuwait: A Desert on Fire by Sebastião Salgado has now been published by Taschen, priced £44.99. www.taschen.com