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Sebastiao Salgado's Photos: 'I Saw What Is Pristine In This Planet'

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From Sebastiao Salgado's "Genesis" project: "Since elephants are hunted by poachers in Zambia, they are scared of humans and vehicles. Alarmed when they see an approaching car, they usually run quickly into the bush. Kafue National Park. Zambia. 2010." (Courtesy of Salgado)

From Sebastiao Salgado’s “Genesis” project: “Since elephants are hunted by poachers in Zambia, they are scared of humans and vehicles. Alarmed when they see an approaching car, they usually run quickly into the bush. Kafue National Park. Zambia. 2010.” (Courtesy of Salgado)

After spending years documenting poverty, oppression and environmental destruction in his sweeping studies of “Workers” and human “Migrations” around the world, photographer Sebastiao Salgado is busy these days debuting exhibits showcasing his eight-year “Genesis” project to seek out unspoiled nature and people living by ancient traditional ways.

Sebastiao Salgado (Courtesy of Lesley University)

Sebastiao Salgado (Courtesy of Lesley University)

Salgado is the most beloved social documentary photographer in the world today because no matter how troubled his subject, he conveys it with breathtaking drama and beauty. The 69-year-old’s “Genesis” project is his most optimistic yet, aiming to offer hope by presenting images of people living in concert with the earth. But it’s a warning, too, about peoples and animals and landscapes teetering on the edge of extinction as industry and development gobble up wildernesses and global warming begins to wreak massive changes on the environment.

The Brazil-raised, Paris-based photographer is scheduled to give a free talk, organized by Lesley University, about his work leading up to “Genesis” at the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square Branch at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25, and then a ticketed talk about “Genesis” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 5. The speeches bookend the opening of his “Genesis” exhibit at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum on May 4.

Salgado talked to me about “Genesis” and his previous projects during a phone interview yesterday. Below are excerpts.

  • “’Genesis’ starts when I was doing yet the stories before. I did a long-term project for seven years, in 1999 I finished a photographic story. It was a long story about the movement of populations, about migrations. In doing this story I was deeply reached by what I was photographing. Most of what I saw in Rwanda was so brutal, so violent. I was not doing the war, I was doing population movement. But there the population was the huge victim of all this kind of revolution that was going on through that time, all the violence. What I did there, what I saw there, in the end I started to be sick. I absorbed so much inside myself that my body start to die. I went to see a doctor in the mountains. He said, ‘Sebastiao, you really must leave the country. You’ll die. You’re dying. You are not sick in any part of your body, but everything is going wrong with you because you are seeing so much despair, so much violence, so much brutality.’”
  • “At this moment, I was finished photographing ‘Migrations’ [published as a book in 2000], and with my wife we laid back a little bit. We went back to Brazil, to the farm that I was born and my parents had this farm. It was a moment that my parents were very old and they take a decision to give this farm for us, to give the farm to Lelia, my wife, and myself. But when I received this land, this land was as dead as was. Because when I was a child, this farm had more than 50, 60 percent of rainforest. When we received it, we had less than half a percent. There were very few forests there. As in every part around us, our valley, all Brazil, we destroy a lot of forest, as you did in the United States, as we did in Canada and many places. To build what we call development, we destroy our native ground.”
  • “We were there and my wife had one idea, she said, ‘Why you don’t replant the rainforest that was here before?’ We take a decision to go ahead. The idea was nice. We asked our friend that was an engineer in forests, in native forests, who made a project for us. To replant all our area in native forest, it was necessarily to us to plant 2,500,000 trees. It was a big, big challenge. But we went, we start. And the life started to come back, real forests, all the trees, birds, all the insects, mammals, in the water, and the life start to come. We walk in there and the life start to come back for us also.”
Detail from Sebastiao Salgado's "Genesis" project: "North of the Ob River, about 100 kilometers inside the Yamal peninsula, fierce winds keep even daytime temperatures low. When the weather is particularly hostile, the Nenets and their reindeer may spend several days in the same place, doing repair work on sledges and reindeer skins to keep busy. The deeper they move into the Arctic Circle, the less vegetation is to be found. Inside the Arctic Circle. Yamal peninsula, Siberia. 2011." (Courtesy of Salgado)

Detail from Sebastiao Salgado’s “Genesis” project: “North of the Ob River, about 100 kilometers inside the Yamal peninsula, fierce winds keep even daytime temperatures low. When the weather is particularly hostile, the Nenets and their reindeer may spend several days in the same place, doing repair work on sledges and reindeer skins to keep busy. The deeper they move into the Arctic Circle, the less vegetation is to be found. Inside the Arctic Circle. Yamal peninsula, Siberia. 2011.” (Courtesy of Salgado)

  • “In these months came the wish to photograph again. I was seeing so many incredible things in the nature that I take decision to photograph nature, to photograph the planet, to do a positive story, a nice story about what was pristine, what was beautiful, to photograph the other animals. I discovered that the life is not our life, but a life of all the species, the animal species, the vegetable species, the mineral. Everything is alive.”
  • “I saw what is pristine in this planet. And we have a lot of the planet that is yet at the day of the beginning.”
  • “Look at what you have around … and there is a lot of land dead. We don’t need more dead. We can rebuild the forest, but not commercial forest that we plan to cut, native forest that give places for the food, for the biodiversity that we need, the planet needs, the sequestration of carbon that we create with these trees, with these forest. For me that is the point.”
  • “I do not do my pictures to be beautiful. I do my pictures because I photograph in this way. I have a style of photography, a way to photograph that is mine.”
  • “When I went to photograph ‘Workers,’ I went to do an homage to the working class around the world.”
  • “I was an economist in the beginning. I did the study not of the economy of enterprise, I did macro economy—public finance, national accounts. In reality, this kind of economy is quantified sociology. When I went to do ‘Workers’ [published as a book in 1993], the economist that was inside of me went because when you do any model of economy, the component worker, the hand power, the human part inside the production is the most important, the most representative. If, for example, you go do a work up about the economy, you’re not photographing the machine, you’re not photographing the capital the comes inside, the technology, you photograph the human being.”
  • “Because it was the end of the first big industrial revolution, it was possible for me to see that the whole human family was organized completely in function of the new way to produce in the world. You see, your country, United States, you take a train from New York, you go to Washington, you travel all inside abandoned industries. All this kind of workers, they were displaced, they went to China, they went to Brazil, they went to India where the hand-power was much more cheap. Photographing ‘Workers,’ it was easy for me to see that the human family was completely organized. About 150,000,000 people per year abandoned the fields to the towns in order to work in these new centers of production of the world. That was incredible.”
  • “I take a decision to do a second story called ‘Migrations.’ ‘Migrations,’ for me, would not be guys that were crossing one border. It was guys that abandoned the fields and were going to the towns to work.”
  • “I came to France in 1969 with my wife because in Brazil we had the problem of a big dictatorship. We were kids in this time. We were very young. Me, I was 24 years old, my wife was 19 when we came to France. But we stay 11 years forbidden to go back to Brazil. We were refugees in France. And after, we became migrants. Till today I’m a migrant. And when I went to do ‘Migrations,’ also I was doing my own history. I was on the ground seven years doing this story. And this story was my story. I was inside. And after that came ‘Genesis.’ All this is to say to you that every story that I did in my life was a big part of my life. I had a powerful identification with them. I believe that this is the most important point. My work of photography was not reportage, was not journalism, was not anthropology. It was a way of life, was my life.”

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