Photographer Sebastião Salgado shapes the Earth and how we see it.
By: Lianna Patch
Photos: Sebastiao Salgado
First things first: there are a lot of articles about Sebastião Salgado. Like, a lot. A Google search brings up more than half a million results for the famous photographer’s name.
And, since director Wim Wenders created “The Salt of the Earth”— a 2014 documentary centering around Salgado and co-directed by Salgado’s son, Juliano — there are even more articles about him.
So you’ll just have to forgive me for being unfamiliar with Salgado’s work before now, and for adding one more article to the mix.
The 71-year-old social documentarian has been described as “legendary,” his photos as “cinematic”; and after a look at his body of work since he left a career in economics to become a full-time, independent photojournalist in the 1980s, it’s no secret why. His photographs could be paintings. Shot in black and white, his photo essays revel in the middle tones. Cascades of rich, charcoal-like grays reveal his mastery of the gelatin silver printing process, while his keen eye for composition results in seemingly effortless balance of fore, middle, and background.
The photographer is known equally for the beauty of his work as for its subjects. He’s long focused on the human condition, and gained international renown in the 1980s for his raw, wrenching shots of Brazilian gold mine workers: Serra Pelada, as the mine was called, became a seething pit of gold-rushers mining for riches after a local found a nugget on the shores of a nearby river. Salgado’s formative shots capture the mud, mess, and madness of the gold rush, and convey his interest in the ways that humans destroy our natural world in the pursuit of industrial and technological development.
He went on to create massive photo essays of the Sahel and Gulf War oil fires, later taking his lens deep into the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. As Andrew Pulver of The Guardian notes, here is where Salgado “came to the end of something; not compassion, exactly, but the ability to force himself into the lives of utterly miserable and desperate human beings”. His work was getting to him, in a way that he couldn’t combat by creating more work.
In a TED talk that’s been viewed more than a million times, Salgado says that by the mid-to-late 2000s, the horrors he witnessed in Rwanda had literally began to kill him from the inside out. He stopped taking photos, and returned to his family farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil. There, he realized that the farm had gone from more than 50 percent untouched rainforest to 0.5 percent; from thousands of cattle to mere hundreds. It was a ruin.
With his wife, Lelia — who, in the film, is afforded some of the immense credit due to her for her influence on her husband’s success, not to mention her ability to raise their sons while he traveled the world — Salgado began transforming the farm into a nature preserve. Though slow at first, the couple’s reforestation efforts succeeded. In 1998, the Instituto Terra was named a national park, and the park now hosts an environmental education center.
Salgado’s quest for the world as it was
The process of renewing his family’s land in turn reinvigorated Salgado for his next project. He returned to photography in 2004, embarking on Genesis, his most awe-inspiring project to date. “And this time, my wish was not to photograph anymore just one animal that I had photographed all my life: us,” he explains. “I wished to photograph the other animals, to photograph the landscapes, to photograph us — but us from the beginning, the time we lived in equilibrium with nature.”
For seven years, Salgado once again traveled the world, seeking the remotest places and most magnificent vistas to create Genesis. He traveled to 32 countries; then, together, he and Lelia pared down thousands of pictures to just over 200. In a release for the International Center for Photography, she describes the project as “a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.”
There are almost — not quite, but almost — no words for the impression that Genesis leaves on the viewer. Instead of focusing in on the human condition, targeting our triumphs and our downfalls, Genesis takes a macro approach to the planet we live on, capturing breathtaking landscapes and fantastic creatures in Salgado’s masterful black-and-white style.
The pictures are a powerful reminder that we can either preserve or destroy the natural world we inherited from our ancestors. “This is what we must fight hard to hold like it is now,” Salgado says in his TED talk.
Salgado is more or less retired; he and Lelia live in Paris, their longtime home.
Lianna Patch is a writer and editor from New Orleans, LA, whose portfolio spans copywriting, cultural publications, and literary journals.
TED TALK – Sebastião Salgado: The silent drama of photography