“Let us not be nasty
© Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/
Sebastião Salgado is a master of black and white storytelling and spoke about his work at The Photography Show in the NEC, Birmingham, UK, on March 21. His carefully composed and highly evocative images of nature and man offer a telling commentary on the modern world. Now, in his 73rd year, he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield how, after a lifetime of study, he still struggles to understand man’s destructive nature...
Salgado has spent his life chronicling the human race. It’s an ongoing preoccupation that has defined his career. He has become high profile because of it, and his prints and books have become highly collectible, prompting some to herald his works as art. If you went to Photo London last year you would have seen his prints selling through art dealers and galleries for many thousands of pounds. The reality isn’t lost on him, but he carefully directs the point back to a more purer topic, that of photography as craft rather than art.
“Some people promote photography as an art, but photography is photography. It is unique! What art can freeze incredible action in a fraction of a second? Photographers bring with them all the future, all the hope and all the life that they have inside themselves. And they get something very powerful from that. It’s a huge honour to be a photographer right now because in 20 years it will be no more; it will have changed. It is changing too fast already.”
He continues: “In reality there is very little photography today. We have billions of images, yes, but they don’t materialise as photographs, they have become almost part of a language of communication that we send, that we show on our phones. So the photograph doesn’t become important. Pure photography at the moment is still a materialised object with a paper support where you touch it, where you look at it. But even now it is not like before, where everyone used to take photographs to record their lives and take the negatives to a shop on the corner to be printed and put in an album.”
A love for print
Salgado’s devotion to his darkroom is legendary. His move to digital worried him because he thought he’d have to give up the chemicals and the craft. But early tests showed him that, while digital was hugely convenient (and meant he’d no longer have to lug a heavy bag of film with him on his travels), it was almost too perfect. It lacked a certain soul.
“The digital is high quality but it is flat,” he states. “But I have made a quality of negative much better than TRI-X [film] now. I worked with a lab here in Paris for two years to create a digital negative that kept the texture and the grain of the film so that I have continuity in my work. In bringing the grain of the TRI-X I bring the same feel into my pictures that I have had all day long and for this I am very happy. I work the same way always in the darkroom. The biggest bulk of my work is on negatives now that are ‘digitalised’. But I have found a special way to put the [TRI-X] grain back into it.”
“The darkroom is still my favourite place, of course,” he insists. “I love being in there and looking at a print coming to life. It is so important to be close to what you are doing; a print is so personal to a photographer. It is part of them; it comes from them, it comes from their soul and their heart. It is totally magic.”
Salgado shoots exclusively on Canon these days. He used to spend a few weeks every year teaching in Japan, and while there he got to know Canon engineers and gave them valuable feedback about tropical climates. Since then he has kept up the relationship and now shoots with an EOS-1D X Mark II, which he absolutely loves.
“I work a lot in Amazonia and I go inside the forests where there is so much water, therefore the EOS-1D X Mark II, because it is weather-sealed with its 22 Megapixel resolution, is fabulous. There is something about the pixels in that camera that is very special."
“I also use an EOS 5DS R for my portraits. And this is also a fabulous camera but I only use it in good climates because it would not survive the conditions in the rainforests. I once spent a month in the Amazon where it rained every day and night. A normal camera would not work in a place like that.”
A deeper understanding
Salgado doesn’t see himself as a technical photographer, although his knowledge of digital is very impressive. The camera to him is just a tool. An impressive tool, but a tool nonetheless. “We have cameras now that give you a fabulous quality and allow you to work in any conditions, and for me as a photographer that is wonderful. Take the EOS-1D X Mark II for example; the great thing about this new camera is the focusing. You don’t realise how good it is because it is working all the time. And it can almost focus in the dark. It’s amazing. But for me, the technology is not important. What is important is the quality of the print. The picture and the print that you hold in your hand should always be your real preoccupation.”
Salgado urges photographers to spend time understanding their subjects in deeper and more meaningful ways. “You need time to understand [your subject]. You need time to get close to it, to understand what it is you are photographing. Take a tree, for instance. You must know the age of this tree; you must know the shape of this tree, the position of this tree in the light. You must know the position of this tree in the forest; the position of this tree against the background. In the end, you must understand what you are doing in order that your picture of this tree has any sense. You must love and respect this tree and realise that it has incredible divinity and personality. You need time and it is just the same when photographing a human.”
Life after Genesis
Salgado’s epic ‘Genesis’ project, a massive undertaking which documented the world’s last remaining unspoiled places, took 14 years to complete and represents a part of his life that he now wants to move on from. The exhibition continues to travel around the world, but he has moved onto new horizons, specifically, the Amazon tribespeople.
“Genesis was a chapter in my life that I have now closed,” he states. “For the last three years I have been working in the Amazonia with Brazilian Indian communities. The big majority of my work now is about these people. I take landscapes, of course, as part of this project, but these people are my main focus. I have probably another three or four years left on this project and then I will have completed it.”
“I hope I can show how we must help the world heal,” he concludes. “We are 7.5 billion people on this planet now, and our behaviour has to change. I hope my pictures can make a difference but I don’t believe so. With the right information and the goodwill of people altogether, then yes, perhaps. But just my pictures? I don’t believe so.”
“We are a complicated animal,” he continues. “And conservation is a complicated story. It’s not only Mr. Trump [citing the American President’s threat to pull out of all international climate treaties]. He can be nasty for the nature, but we are all being very nasty to our planet. We human beings, we keep on destroying. We destroy space. And it’s not just the guys that live in the towns, either. Even people on the farms in the countryside destroy. Even these Amazonian Indians that I am photographing! They build fires inside the Amazonian forests when they hunt. It is not a big deal because it is on a small scale and of course that is how they hunt. But it is that act of destroying that still concerns me...”
Meet Sebastião Salgado!
Sebastião Salgado gave a lecture about his work at The Photography Show this year on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at 11am on the event’s Super Stage and also appeared on the Canon stand at D141 & E131 at 2pm. To find out more about The Photography Show click here.
Biography: Sebastião Salgado
© Amazonas Images
Sebastião Salgado was born on February 8, 1944, in Aimorés, in the state of Minas Gerais, 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. He has travelled in over 100 countries for his photographic projects. Most of these have also been presented in books such as 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 (2014). Sebastião Salgado is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and an honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. He lives with his wife in Paris, France.