When US forces pushed Saddam Hussein’s troops out from Kuwait, at the end of the First Gulf War in 1991, retreating Iraqi forces set hundreds of oil wells ablaze, leaving behind a hellscape in their wake.
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The infernos created one of the worst environmental disasters ever recorded. As firefighters from around the world charged into the Greater Burgan oil fields, Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado followed after them to document the crisis. His images, first published in The New York Times in June 1991, have now been compiled into a monograph for the first time.
Salgado remembers that, on arrival, the heat was so intense that it warped one of his camera lenses. “My jaws ached from the sheer tension of being exposed for hours to scalding temperatures, noise and stench,” he says, “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.”
Now 25 years on, Salgado still remembers each photograph vividly. In the book, he recounts looking through his archives and how “the images had a timeless quality: they were taken in 1991, but they could be taken today or tomorrow if a similar disaster occurred... Never before or since have I witnessed an unnatural disaster on such a scale.”
Kuwait: A Desert on Fire is also available as a signed and limited collector’s edition. The 80 images inside are museum-quality, interlaid with transparency paper and printed with cutting-edge technology known as High Definition Skia Photography – which allows for all visible elements captured by the camera to be transferred to print.