BOSTON, MASS.- Robert Klein Gallery
is presenting an exhibition of work by Sebastião Salgado. Kuwait: A Desert on Fire runs from Tuesday, September 5 through Wednesday, November 29 at Robert Klein Gallery at 38 Newbury Street.
When the Iraqi Army retreated across the Kuwaiti desert in early 1991, after being repelled by U.S.-led coalition forces in Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein and his soldiers took the military strategy of "scorched earth," and set aflame about 700 oil wells, igniting persistent fires across Kuwait, and creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history.
When Sebastião Salgado traveled to the Middle East to document the grueling fire-fight, he quickly realized just how dangerous and brutal the world was that he had stepped into - a quagmire of health hazards, the air choked with soot, searing heat from the flames and desert sun, and cluster bombs littering the sand. The heat was so vicious that his smallest lens warped. A journalist and another photographer were killed when a slick ignited as they crossed it.
Sticking close to the firefighters, Salgado braved the intense danger, stench, pollution, and scorching temperatures to capture the ravaged landscape; the air choking on charred sand and soot; the blistered remains of camels; the sand littered with cluster bombs; the flames and smoke soaring to the skies, blocking out the sunlight, dwarfing the oil-soaked firefighters.
The pictures first appeared in The New York Times Magazine in June 1991 and were subsequently hailed as one of the photographer's most captivating bodies of work.
"Twenty-five years ago, as the United States-led coalition started driving out Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's troops responded by setting ablaze hundreds of oil wells, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory.
By the time I reached southeastern Kuwait in April 1991, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, the war had ended but the smoke from the arson in the Greater Burgan oil fields continued to obliterate the sun and the flames lit up the desert horizon. Oil-well firefighters from dozens of countries had begun working in unbelievably difficult circumstances to try to extinguish the inferno.
For me, these men are the true heroes of the war. Covered head to foot in oil, they moved like phantoms through the gloom. The roar of the flames forced them to communicate by shouting into one another's ears.
I remember that the heat warped one of my lenses and my jaws ached from the sheer tension of being exposed for hours to scalding temperatures, noise and stench and to the unabating fear of a major explosion. Going from one burning or belching well to another, I quickly understood that I needed special equipment if I was to photograph the workers and their operation close up. By good fortune, I found supplies - strong boots and protective clothing - left behind in the desert by the Iraqi Army.
It took billions of dollars and years of work to clean up the mess of Saddam Hussein's failed scorched earth policy. Twenty-five years later, wars are raging in much of the Middle East, and oil fields have already been set aflame. We must remember that in the brutality of battle another such apocalypse is always just around the corner."