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 may have taken the military strategy of “scorched earth” too literally. Creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history, about 700 oil wells were set aflame, igniting persistent fires across Kuwait.
With the conflagration still present, photographer Sebastião Salgado traveled to the Middle East to document to grueling fire-fight firsthand. He quickly realized how dangerous and brutal the world was that he just stepped into, a quagmire of health hazards—the air choked with soot, searing heat from the flames and desert sun, cluster bombs littering the sand. Two people were killed when an oil slick they stepped on unexpectedly lit up, and one the Salgado’s lenses warped from the heat. From that point onward, he stuck close to the firefighters and documented the ravaged landscape.
Amidst the grueling conditions, the photographer bonded with his protectors, the firefighters. “These guys are heroes of our time,” Salgado told The New York Times. “They are doing hard, difficult work. That is part of their pride, part of their life, part of their love. It’s very important the pictures can reflect all this.” The relationship was based on mutual trust, despite a common language, and it shows in his work.
The resulting photo series, first published alongside a 1991 essay in New York Times Magazine, would come to define the historic moment for readers around the world.
For the first time ever, these images are being published in a standalone collection, Kuwait: A Desert on Fire, that contains more than 80 images. Hailed as one his most captivating bodies of work, the collection of images won Salgado the Oskar Barnack Award, which recognizes the best photography exploring the relationship between man and his environment. The series would come to define the rest of his career; all his projects since Kuwait have touched on his social and environmental concerns.
With limited releases, A Desert on Fire is being sold as a “collector’s edition,” signed by Salgado himself, and an “art edition” that comes with a silver gelatin print from the photo series. Available through Taschen, the art edition is $3,000, while the collector’s edition sells for $1,000, and a regular edition costs $59. You can order a copy here.
To learn more about Salgado’s experience documenting the oil fires firsthand, read The New York Times‘ story on the photographer from 1991 here. More of Salgado’s photos from Kuwait can be viewed below.