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In conversation with Sebastião SalgadoThe man, his work, his life









Sebastião Salgado

“OK, we go!” he declares, and with a decisive rap of his knuckles on a rickety old director’s chair, we’re off. We only have two hours with him, but in that time we see for ourselves Sebastião Salgado’s skills as a photographer...

How did you get to the position you are in now?

“I originally studied to be an economist but in 1973 I had a change of heart and became a news photographer, working first with Sygma and then the agencies Gamma and Magnum Photos until 1994 when I formed my own agency, Amazonas Images. Up until that point I would work on my own projects separately but I reached a point where I wanted to spend my time on my own stories. I am a storyteller.”

How do you approach digital photography?

“To be a photographer, it is important to be a photographer. Photography is a formal language. But I cannot edit [pictures] on a screen. My assistants make me a contact sheet instead and I make my choice from that; then I make the prints exactly like I have done all my life. We produce an archive print and I introduce the grain of the Tri-X [film] into it.”

Why were you reluctant to use digital cameras?

“I was always opposed to digital but these new cameras are fabulous tools. Before I had my film and now I have my digital card. But the result is exactly the same. I still produce a negative that I can print from. I print onto silver paper, which has a quality so different from inkjet. It is closer to my vision.

You continue to shoot in black and white. Why is this?

“Black and white became a choice. I believe I am a storyteller of history. I like to tell stories and I like to live my stories. When I started photographing in colour, with slides, it was impossible. You’d mount your film, you put them on a lighted table [lightbox], you identify the good pictures and take them out, and you completely break your sequence.

In black and white it was different. In a contact sheet, from the first to the last, it was possible for me to live my history. When I look at my old work, such as the gold mine stories from 1986, I live once again the moments, almost 30 years later. I remember everything. I remember what aperture I used, what my shutter speed was, even my relations with the guys in the pictures, the noise, the smells. I remember everything. You don’t need colour for that.”

Can you explain how you came to establish Instituto Terra?

“I was mentally exhausted. What I saw in Africa and the former Yugoslavia was very tough for me. It was a disaster. For me, it was very depressing and I became mentally tired so I took the decision to take a rest, take a break, and so I went back to Brazil. It was also the moment that my parents had grown old and they decided to give me their farm that I grew up on as a child. It was paradise that farm when I was a child. But I got there and it was completely destroyed. There was erosion everywhere and no water. A farm that had a capacity of thousands of heads of cattle was reduced to just a few hundred. The land was as dead as I was tired.”

What is the remit behind the project?

“My wife [Leila] had an idea. She said ‘why not plant the forest that was here before? It grew here once, it can grow again.’ Various trees are propagated in a special nursery we built and are then transferred to the forest. We now grow a million seedlings a year from over 100 different species.”

Did you face any special challenges during your ‘Genesis’ project?

“Genesis was actually a very dangerous project. I wanted to photograph the untouched parts of the world and walking across glaciers, for example, requires special knowledge from experts. So I would work with two or three experts who would become my friends and my assistants as the project continued.”

With ‘Genesis’ it seems you truly embraced digital photography.

“Yes. Especially with the Canon DSLRs. With the 35mm full frame sensor you have a quality and the luxury to work with fabulous depth-of-field which is better than medium format. Medium format is slow and heavy, and with Genesis I had to work quickly because I was photographing animals as well as people.”

What are your favourite lenses with the Canon EF lens system?

“I have always used prime lenses for my portraits. I really love the EF50mm f/1.2L USM and a lot of the work on Genesis was done with the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. I have recently been using the EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM zoom, which is fabulous. It is actually smaller than the EF70-200mm. I love how fast these lenses are.”

What are your thoughts on the EOS 5DS R?

“The quality is amazing. I carried out some tests with it and produced a test print. I then took a small section of that image and blew it up to a large one metre wide print. Even at that size the image was still sharp with no degradation in image quality. But you know, I have one problem with this camera and that it that is not tropicalised. With these cameras you cannot spend all day in the rain with them, like I can with the [EOS] 1D X. But I’m sure that one day Canon will produce a camera that will have perfect weather-sealing and that amazing 50 Megapixel sensor.”

SEBASTIãO SALGADO's Equipment choice

  • Canon EOS-1D X

    Canon EOS-1D X

    The EOS-1D X is Canon’s flagship professional DSLR with an 18.1 Megapixel full-frame sensor, a 61-point AF system, up to 14 frames per second shooting and ISO capabilities up to 204,800. Find out more...

  • Canon EOS 5DS R

    Canon EOS 5DS R

    The EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R are full-frame DSLRs featuring high-resolution 50.6 Megapixel sensors, ideal for capturing an extraordinary amount of detail in a subject. Find out more...

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III

    Canon EOS 5D Mark III

    The EOS 5D Mark III is a 22.3 Megapixel full-frame DSLR capable of stunning stills and Full HD video. It builds on technologies first seen in Canon’s flagship EOS-1D X DSLR. Find out more...

  • EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

    EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

    The EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is an update of a popular L-series standard zoom lens with completely redesigned optics to provide improved image quality and improved durability for everyday use. Find out more...

  • EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

    EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

    Canon's EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is a fast aperture macro lens that is the first Canon lens to incorporate Hybrid Image Stabilizer (IS) technology to combat both angular and shift camera shake. Find out more...

  • EF50mm f/1.2L USM

    EF50mm f/1.2L USM

    The fastest standard lens in its class, the EF50mm f/1.2 USM lens is a natural choice for ambient light portraits with a natural, flattering perspective. Great for shooting shallow depth-of-field situations. Find out more...

  • EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

    EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

    Canon's EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a 2010 update of a high quality telephoto zoom lens that incorporates a four-stop Image Stabilizer to ensure great hand held results, closer focusing down to 1.2m and faster AF. Find out more...

  • EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM

    EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM

    Do you want one lens to do it all? One lens to go from shooting a wide crowd scene to zooming in on the centre of attention? This 11x zoom focuses from 0.7m and has a 3-stop Image Stabilizer. Find out more...

SEBASTIãO SALGADO on his printing workflow


Sebastião Salgado has a team of digital archivists and technicians at his Paris office who, under his guidance, make sure that his rigorous attention to detail and high standards are always maintained. Fastidious about quality, Salgado gets involved in every stage of the image process: from archiving photographs to trimming prints in the studio, here is a man who’s obsessive quest for quality is the very force that keeps him at the top of his game.

Salgado’s workflow is very traditional. When his images are downloaded he has his digital team made them into a contact sheet – just like he used to do in the days of film – and from there he can make his edit and retain the flow of the story. From the contact sheet, larger 10x8in prints are then made and put onto a big wall for him to then piece together the narrative.

Salgado prints his work using specialist photographic paper, which features an inkjet layer coated directly onto a true baryta (barium sulphate) layer which, along with a fibre base, produces prints that replicate the unique look of traditional silver halide photo paper.

The resulting print is, for Salgado, the end result of a very specific and involved digital journey. Having spent considerable time and investment in replicating the grain from his beloved Kodak Tri-X film into digital form, he is able to carry on shooting in his own style, knowing that his vision will be faithfully reproduced.