This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – from the archive my interview with Sebastião Salgado published in Pro Photo in 2013. I interviewed Salgado about his then new work Genesis, conducting the interview over the phone. Much of our discussion ended up focusing on his environmental work on his family’s farm in Brazil. Later that year I met him in Paris at the Museum of European Photography. As I had deduced from our interview, Salgado is one of the most articulate, dedicated and humble people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
If you haven’t done so already, please watch the first three video interviews in the series Photojournalism Now: In Conversation – Robin Hammond, Renée C. Byer and Sean Gallagher – and look out for the next instalment coming later this month.
Also, this week there are a couple of online exhibitions worth checking out:
Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego
Nagasaki Journey Archive (1945): The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata is an intense reminder of the horrors of war. This picture breaks my heart.
Magnet Galleries – Gallery Five in 3D
Changing pace, Magnet Galleries in Melbourne has launched Gallery Five, its online offer to get us through the lockdown. Currently on show is David Apostol’s Ghosts of a Recent Memory, complete with “guided tour”. Magnet’s approach replicates the gallery experience in a really unique way. You can tour the exhibition in 3D and view photographs in much the same way you would in reality. It’s a very cool way to use the technology.
From the archive:
Sebastião Salgado – The Accidental Environmentalist
An interview conducted by Alison Stieven-Taylor and published in Pro Photo 2013.
Sebastião Salgado is an icon to photographers around the world although this incredibly unpretentious man, who has created some of the most extraordinary, and important, documentary imagery of our time, would probably not identify with that label.
In March (2013) I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Salgado about his latest epic project: Genesis, which is both a book and touring exhibition. To me, Salgado is like the Mick Jagger of documentary photography, so the opportunity to speak to someone whose work I admire enormously was at once exciting and somewhat intimidating. But the deep passion he holds for the photographic medium, his generosity in sharing his knowledge and his obvious love of nature, quickly dispelled any sense of trepidation.
Genesis is an eight-year project that has taken Salgado to 32 countries in his search for the most “pristine locations left on earth”, and for the “people who are still living in harmony with nature”, as they have done for millennia.
There has been a hiatus of several years between the creation of this work and his last long-term project, Migrations, a collection of images spanning 40 countries; profound visual evidence of humankind’s will to survive, and also of a cruelty beyond measure. He tells me that after the emotional weight of Migrations he required time out.
“I spent six years working with refugee and migrant populations in very tough situations. In Rwanda I saw so many incredibly violent things, brutality at a level you cannot imagine, such total violence. I started to become sick. I saw so many deaths that I started to die.” It is more than a decade since Migrations was completed, but the tremor in his voice is still evident as he recalls experiences that have left him deeply affected.
Salgado says he and his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, who is his partner in all aspects of his life, “retired a little bit in our place in Brazil on land we had received from my parents. This big farm is where I was born, and it had been more than 50 percent rainforest, but when I received what was left, it was less than half a percent of rainforest. All my region had been destroyed in order to build the modern Brazil, destroyed as humanity has done everywhere on the planet. Lélia had an idea of replanting the rainforest that was here. So we started our environmental project to restore our forest not knowing that we were becoming environmental activists”.
They consulted a friend who was knowledgeable in forest restoration and he estimated that 2.5 million trees of more than 200 species would be required to revive the ecosystem that had existed previously. Salgado says, “we are not rich people, so we began to raise money from many different places and we transformed this land into a national park”. Over the next three years hundreds of thousands of trees started to grow, and the water came back, as did birds, mammals and other rainforest animals.
He tells me that the restoration of the rainforest is now almost complete with two million trees in the ground as at December last year. “We now have more than 177 species of birds in our forest, and the jaguars are coming back. Our forest in Brazil has become one of the biggest environmental projects in the country. We have also created an educational centre, Instituto Terra, and the biggest nursery for native plants of our region with a capacity to produce about one million seedlings a year of more than 100 different species. It has become an incredible project. And now our publisher Taschen is going to offset the carbon it takes to produce our book so we can do even more…This project started as an accident,” he trails off and I can hear in his voice that he is still amazed by what they have achieved.
As Salgado watched the rainforest recuperate he says, “the life started to become stronger in us too. And I had an idea to go back to photography, but no more did I want to photograph the only animal I had focused on all my life, us. I had an idea to photograph the other animals and to photograph the landscape, and yes to photograph us, but us from the beginning when we lived in harmony with nature. We wanted to do a new presentation of the planet to show the people how incredible our planet is and so I spent eight years to tell this story”.
The logistics behind Genesis are almost as impressive as the final outcome, a feat Lélia describes as a “marathon”. Salgado travelled by mule, boat, plane, balloon and truck depending on locale. Many journeys had to be done by foot and timing was worked around small windows of good weather – summer in Antarctica and the Artic, before the rains in Indonesia and the floods in Brazil. Salgado travelled in two-month blocks making four trips annually over the eight years.
He, Lélia and the team at Amazonas Images, the Salgado’s company, worked tirelessly researching to plan the scope of Genesis. Next came funding – a project of this scale is expensive – and many editorial partners and organisations were enlisted to support it. Finally in 2004 Salgado, at the age of 60, was ready to make his first trip for Genesis, to the Galápagos Islands, which Lélia says was “a logical starting point for a look back at our planet’s earlier life”.
After each trip Salgado would return home to Paris with 10,000 images. Shooting on both film and digital, each image was assessed, without the aid of a computer – he doesn’t use one. The end result is an extraordinary collection of more than 200 black and white photographs. This month (April) Taschen will publish Genesis and the exhibition of the same name will make its world premiere in London at the Natural History Museum. Lélia is once again editor, curator and designer of the collection, which is divided into five sections: Planet South, which is self-explanatory; Sanctuaries including The Galápagos, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea; Africa; Northern Spaces and; Amazonia and Pantanal.
In thinking about the highlights of this eight-year opus, Salgado recalls the 850km trek he made from one of the holiest cities in northern Ethiopia, Lalibela, to the town of Gondar, situated at 2300m and famous for its castles and religious architecture. “The walk took about two months through the mountains,” says Salgado. “It was a unique experience and I walked because there are no roads. These tribes live as they did in Old Testament times and produce everything they need – food, textiles even farming tools. After the first week of walking I was very far from any towns and roads, and I was inspired to be part of this society that was completely living in another era, and in harmony with the land. They have very sophisticated agricultural practices and artisans and craftsmen are very important in this society. It is so beautiful and walking there you understand how these lands, these rivers all ran to Egypt and made the glory of Egypt, it was incredible”.
He tells how at the end of a day’s walk when he was so tired he could no longer stand someone took off “my shoes to wash and cleanse my feet in the oldest symbolism of the humility of the Christians. You know it was incredible. For me this was the most fabulous walk, you cannot imagine how beautiful it is really, the most pristine and beautiful place of the world”.
There were, of course, explorations that left him frustrated. He says he has no pictures of the Himalayas, but not for lack of trying. “I did a walk along the border of Butan and China, more than 550 kilometres across very high mountains and it was raining, monsoonal. Two months in the rain, that for me was very tough, it was an extremely long walk, and I became very tired with no pictures. That was the most difficult for me in this sense, but I wanted to see the most pristine places on the planet and they are not easy to access. If they were easy, we would have already destroyed them”.
Surprisingly there were few interruptions to his voyages – in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, Salgado fell ill with malaria and had to cut short that trip. And deep in the forests of Papua New Guinea, Jacques Barthélemy Salgado’s assistant had to be evacuated after his leg became infected from a bee sting – but much of what was planned went ahead without too many aberrations and Lélia and their son Juliano, a filmmaker, joined Salgado where possible.
After eight years immersed in this project, I ask him how he feels now it is completed. He doesn’t hesitate. “I want to go again,” he laughs and it is immediately obvious that Genesis has indeed rejuvenated his soul. “Because you see for Genesis I am finished, but I want to do a few things more. I’ll give you an example. I work a lot in the south of the planet and I want to complete that. I have a big wish to go to New Zealand, to the islands and to complete my set of pictures of the landscape in the south. I worked a lot for the Genesis project there, and I had worked before in this area. But I want to go back to see the mountains, I want to walk on that ground again. I saw so many incredible things that I want to connect again with the planet, the environment. To me that is life”.
He says he’s always had a connection to nature. “Absolutely always. I was born on this farm in Brazil, I tell you I was born in a paradise where I went for long walks in the forest and swam in the rivers with Caimans (large aquatic South American reptiles). Look at my pictures, the best of my pictures are of the countryside, so country for me is very important. For Genesis I walked a lot, climbed a lot, in my search for pristine locations. What I did for myself in going to these marvelous places is the biggest gift a person can receive”.
Whereas Migrations was “a very disturbing story”, Genesis is a celebration of the wonders of nature, but he cautions that “it is also a warning, I hope, of all that we risk losing. I hope that the people who see Genesis will understand we have an incredible planet, a planet that we must respect and protect. We must also have respect for our species and for the other animal species. We destroy too much and give too much to the modern part of our society. If we want to continue to live here we must restore order to what we have destroyed. Everything is alive on our planet. We must integrate again with our planet, or one day our planet will push us out completely, and we will disappear as a species. We are breaking this essential link that we have with nature”.
Earlier in our interview Salgado had told me he was not a rich man. Perhaps in the way the Western world views riches that may be true, but in the things that we should all hold dear – compassion, humanity and respect for ourselves, other creatures and Mother Earth – he is abundant.
Sebastião Salgado Genesis Published by Taschen