Spotlight

Operation Desert Hell: Sebastiao Salgado in Kuwait

06th November 2021
Desert Hell, Kuwait, 1991 Salgado

Words Eleanor Lerman

06th November 2021

More so than any other contemporary photographer, Sebastião Salgado has come to typify the genre of fine art documentary photography. Renowned for his highly skilled tonality, the chiaroscuro effect of his dramatic black and white images has contributed to the repositioning of photography as ‘high art’. His success undoubtedly issues from both his political insight and distinctive aesthetic that renders the world both beautiful and humbling.

In January and February 1991, as the United States–led coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s army retaliated with an inferno. At some 700 oil wells they ignited vast, raging fires, sending billowing black clouds over the region and thousands of tons of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The desert was transformed into a dilapidated landscape, the sunlight unable to pierce through the thick smoke.

Desert Hell, Kuwait, 1991 Salgado

    Without any operational attempt to bring them under control, it was anticipated that the fires would remain burning for two to five years before dissipating on their own. Named ‘Operation Desert Hell’, firefighters went in to face the flames, trying frantically to save the Gulf state from economic, ecological and humanitarian disaster. As the desperate efforts to contain and extinguish the fires progressed, Sebastião Salgado travelled to Kuwait to witness the crisis first-hand. The heat was so vicious that Salgado’s smallest lens warped. Travelling with the firefighters, Salgado captured the ravaged landscape, the charred sand and soot, the blistered remains of camels, the sand littered with cluster bombs and smoke soaring to the skies. ‘For me, these men are the true heroes of the war,’ Salgado stated, looking back on these pivotal works, ‘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 am as moved now by the dedication of the firefighters as I was a quarter of a century ago’.

    Widely hailed as Salgado’s most courageous and captivating work, the series was awarded the Oskar Barnack Award, recognising outstanding photography on the relationship between man and the environment. Salgado’s monochrome images encapsulate both the brutality of the scenes and the impressive bravery expressed from the firefighters. Desert Hell, Kuwait, 1991, powerfully captures a moment in the two months after the end of the Gulf War, when more the 500 oil wells spewed out roaring tornadoes of flames into the black sky. A man is pictured walking into the hellish inferno, covered in oil and seemingly unnerved by the alarming scene surrounding him. It is an apocalyptic composition, depicting blazing fires all encompassed by thick, black smoke that insights in the viewer a feeling of hopelessness and fear.

    FeaturedSebastião Salgado

    Salgado header

    The ArtistUndertaking projects of vast temporal and geographic scope, Sebastião Salgado is one of the most celebrated photojournalists working today. Whilst inescapably memorable for their beauty, Salgado’s photographs are laden with political purpose exposing the social and environmental problems facing our planet.

    Artist Page

    Close

    Join Our Mailing List

    Stay up-to-date and in-the-know with all the latest from our community.

    By continuing to use this site you consent with our cookie policy.

    Close

    Close

    Close