Sebastião Salgado explains his epic Genesis project
© Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images
His name, a brand in itself, is on every list of the world’s most influential photographers. Sebastião Salgado has been a towering figure in the world of ‘concerned photography’ for 40 years, and now Genesis, his most recent and arguably most ambitious body of work taking in over 30 countries, is being exhibited around the world, with 30 museum shows planned in the coming years. In an exclusive interview, the legendary Brazilian photographer spoke to CPN writer Mike Stanton about what inspired him to take on such a huge endeavour.
Sebastião Salgado only does ‘epic’. His projects span continents and take years to complete. They tackle big, interconnected themes such as work, migration, childhood, exploitation, disease, macroeconomics and war. The black and white images he creates – he doesn’t take colour pictures – have an almost biblical texture and seem to connect everything to everything else.
In Workers, published as a book in 1993 and still touring the world as an exhibition, Salgado gave us an archeological exploration of manual labour across the continents, most memorably in his depiction of the mud-soaked prospectors digging in the Brazilian gold mines. In Migrations (2000), he examined the cause and effect of people fleeing their homes to escape war, poverty and repression. Now, at the age of 69, he has completed what he says is his final long-term project.
Ironically, perhaps, Genesis began in the Galápagos Islands in 2004, 176 years after Charles Darwin’s famous visit marked the beginning of the end for creationism. Since 2004 Salgado has produced more than 30 stories based on lengthy visits to some of the world’s most pristine environments: from Siberia and Antarctica to the jungles, deserts and mountains of Asia, Africa and South America. Genesis is his great eulogy to the planet and everything on it, good and bad – and he has seen a lot of bad in his 40 years as a documentary photographer.
In 1994 he was in Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the border with Rwanda. What he witnessed was a scene of almost unimaginable horror. Millions had fled over the border to escape the carnage of the Rwandan Genocide. He saw 10,000 people die in one day from cholera and the other diseases that tore through the refugee camps as they swelled to more than a million souls.
This was a part of world he knew and loved from the visits he made as an economist for the International Coffee Organisation in the 1970s, before he became a photographer. When he returned to the area in 2004 to document its active volcanoes, forests and the endangered mountain gorillas as part of his Genesis project he was, perhaps, in some way counterbalancing what he had seen 10 years earlier. “Genesis is a kind of homage to the beauty of the planet and at the same time I remember the terror, the things I saw that were very difficult to see,” he says.
Salgado, the former Magnum, Sygma and Gamma photographer, admits that Genesis is not a piece of scientific work: “I’m just a photographer, and this is my point of view about the planet.” He wanted to go to places that were still pristine and show how wondrous our world is and how almost half the planet is exactly as it was at ‘the genesis’. “We probably use less than five per cent of the deserts, and Antarctica, apart from a few bases, is untouched. We have destroyed a lot of Amazonia, but 70 per cent is still untouched. And there is very little exploitation of the land over 3,000m. Living in urban areas, we have the impression that all this has gone. The big surprise is that it’s really not,” he adds.
At the end of 2008 he travelled to Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, a beautiful and very religious town known for its monolithic, Coptic churches carved from ‘living’ rock. With the help of guides, maps, GPS instruments and a drove of donkeys he walked 850 kilometres across some of the most inaccessible mountains in the world to the town of Gondar, taking pictures as he travelled. It took him two months. “People have walked these traditional roads for thousands of years. They live as they lived in the Old Testament. They produce their own textiles, metal and agricultural instruments. It is the only part of Africa that was never colonised. It was the most beautiful, important and impressive voyage in all my life.”
Many of the communities he photographed have only made contact with the outside world in the past few decades. He says he has no desire to find people who remain ‘undiscovered’. “I believe these people should stay as they are. In the Amazon, it has been estimated that there are at least 50 groups that have had no contact with what we call ‘civilisation’. The people I photograph have been contacted. Ninety-five per cent of them know what a camera is and what a photographer is. But they still live in equilibrium with their natural environments in a traditional way.”
Although Salgado wanted to show that many people still live as they did 50,000 years ago, he does not think this offers any solace to those who exploit and the billions of us who know, or care, little about people and lands far away. In fact, he believes that if we destroy much more of our planet there is no guarantee we will continue to survive as a species. “I’ve seen many places in big danger,” he warns. “In West Papua we are destroying forests at amazing speed, and exploiting rivers. The culture of the people is being destroyed.”
However, the biggest threat right now, he says, is to the oceans: “We’ve broken an equilibrium. We’ve started a second exploitation of the fish in much deeper waters, and we’re exploiting oil in deep water. These are very fragile systems, and we saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico last year and how difficult it was to control [the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill]. If this exploitation was on larger scale it could become very complicated.”
Much of the campaigning efforts in the West are aimed at the big oil and mining conglomerates, but we also need to question our everyday lives and the objects we possess, he says. “No one’s willing not to have a computer or a tape recorder – they are made with metal – but I don’t know if we need these things and all this raw material. In the end, this is part of the crazy machine that we created.”
There is no getting away from it, Salgado’s photographs pose a question for all of us, and especially the rich countries: how willing and able are we to change the way we live to help save our planet? “The big problem is in our [Western] society,” he insists. “We must behave in another way. No one here wants to reduce a little bit of the comfort. No, we want to consume more. If you take 20 stores, probably three or four sell the essential goods we need to live. We have a choice of a hundred different kinds of shirt; to produce all of this we need to take from nature, from the land, to destroy, to pollute.”
With Genesis, Salgado is trying to help us at least make an informed attempt at answering this question. Through these images he seems to be saying: ‘Look! Look how beautiful the world is – and if we work together we can protect it from our selfish and thoughtless ways’. He cites the example of the Brazilian Amazon, where the rate of the destruction of the forest has slowed because of the impact of environmental movements and a more interventionist approach by the government.
Salgado plays down his part in this movement. However, in 1998 he and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado – director of his agency Amazonas Images and producer of many of his books and exhibitions – created the Instituto Terra in Brazil aimed at reforestation, conservation and environmental education. It has so far replanted more than 1.7 million trees. The Institute includes a nursery that can produce one million seedlings of more than 100 species of tree each year for government projects, private companies, farmers and other environmental institutions. He says that the demand for native trees has increased so much that it is planning to produce five million trees a year. But he insists that it is not he who is ‘making the difference’. “We work as a group – it’s a community. One person can have a very good idea, but alone it is just peanuts.”
Salgado’s modesty is typical of the man, but to the millions of people who have seen and been moved by his photographs, he is most certainly making a difference. His images beguile us and calmly demand attention. They turn us upside down and inside out, and convert us to his relentless cause: to show us the beauty and horror of the world as he sees it – from mountain top and dusty track to endangered village and tainted sea – and force us to question who we are and what we do.
The book of Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis project is being published by Taschen in a variety of formats, including a two volume Collector’s Edition (that has 2,500 copies numbered and signed by Salgado), five Art Editions that are each limited to 100 copies and a standard hardback version. The book is arranged in five chapters geographically: Planet South, Sanctuaries, Africa, Northern Spaces and Amazonia and Pantanal.
For the Genesis project Sebastião Salgado used medium format cameras but since 2008 he has been using Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III and - more recently - the EOS-1D X, adapted so he sees a 645 frame. He says he is astonished by the quality of the image files he is able to produce and that ‘going digital’ has not led to him taking more pictures. “I don’t look at the back of the camera after I take a picture. I only look [at the end of a day’s shoot] very quickly to see if there is a problem.”
After each trip he returned to his Paris office with around 10,000 pictures. He edits all of the images himself, but not on screen. In fact, he never uses a computer. He has contact sheets produced and edits with a loupe. He then produces his own small prints and edits again. The best images from each trip, around 100, are chosen and a physical negative is created by the Dupon photo lab in Paris. They are then printed on 30x40cm silver paper and checked again, with a further negative being produced if necessary. “The negatives are so perfect that we can create a digital negative from the physical one and start the whole process again,” he reveals.
His enthusiasm for photography as a way of looking at and understanding the world seems unquenchable. “I like to have this ‘eye’ and to organise this space… you try to have the best camera and for it to be adapted so that you’re comfortable with it.”
His advice to young documentary photographers is, predictably, not technical: “You should have a good knowledge of history, of geopolitics, of sociology and anthropology to understand the society that we’re part of and to understand yourself and where you’re from in order to make choices. A lack of this knowledge will be much more limiting than any technical ability.”
Sebastião Salgado’s equipment
EOS-1Ds Mark III
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2 USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
EF300mm f/4L IS USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM
EF1.4x II Extender
Biography: Sebastião Salgado
© Unicef/Nicole Toutounji
Sebastião Salgado was born in 1944 in Brazil. Having studied economics, Salgado began his career as a professional photographer in 1973 in Paris, working with the photo agencies Sygma, Gamma, and Magnum Photos until 1994, when he and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, formed Amazonas Images, an agency created exclusively for his work. His books include, Other Americas (1986), Sahel: l’homme en détresse (1986), Sahel: el fin del camino (1988), Workers (1993), Terra (1997), Migrations and Portraits (2000), Africa (2007) and Genesis (2013). Salgado’s exhibitions have been seen by millions of people throughout the world and he has been awarded numerous major photographic prizes. He is a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and an honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. He lives in Paris.