He is one of the last living legends of photography. At 75, this Brazilian citizen of the world, who found refuge in France in 1969 after fleeing the dictatorship, remains a passionate globe trotter, constantly at the ready with an eye trained on the major issues facing the planet. Through his words and images he works in the tireless defence of human dignity and its incontrovertible counterpart, the environment.
“My time is very limited at the moment, I have a thousand things to do before I leave for two months to meet indigenous communities in the Amazon,” he says over the phone from Brazil, as if to perpetuate the myth. His voice is firm and melodic, his perfect French sprinkled with numerous “tu vois”.
“We’re in the process of ruining the last stretch of rainforest in the Amazon, it’s a serious time for that country and its indigenous tribes as well as for the whole planet. You see, we need to find a different economic relationship with Amazonia, so far, all investments have proved destructive to the environment, it’s a disaster. If we lose this forest, we lose everything. »
The Amazon and its peaceful people “in total harmony with nature” is the story he has been photographing virtually full-time for almost four years and he feels he needs at least another three years to finish his project. It will then undoubtedly become a new sell-out exhibition which will tour the world. “I have arranged my life around the need to be able to deal with a subject over a long period of time, I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. To fully understand what is happening or to be accepted by a community takes time. You have to live what you are photographing in order to appreciate its importance.” We then remember reading about him spending whole days sitting on the docks in Bangladesh watching and being watched by workers dismantling boats, before finally reaching for his camera….
RESTORING THE RAINFOREST OF HIS CHILDHOOD
Salgado is a man in a hurry who takes his time, even for crazy projects like replanting a rainforest in his birthplace, the Rio Dulce Valley in Brazil. There his father owned a cattle ranch of hundreds of hectares, while all around the property the bulldozers of the deforestation companies did their deadly work.
At the beginning of the year 2000, left deeply psychologically scarred from years spent photographing the exodus of people driven out by hunger or war (particularly in Rwanda), and also suffering from the criticism of those who hitherto praised him but now accused him of an aestheticization of poverty, that old refrain, – he took some time off and went back to the place where he grew up, the only boy in the middle of seven sisters. “I found a completely ruined land, almost dead, whereas; when I was a child, this area was covered with fantastic trees of great biodiversity,” explains the photographer. It is his wife Lélia, his constant companion who organizes his work and to whom he constantly pays tribute, who would present him with this new challenge: to plant two and a half million trees of three hundred different species to revive the rainforest of his childhood and restore its biodiversity. The couple then founded the NGO “Instituto Terra” to raise funds and launch environmental awareness and education programs. Since then, the family property has become a national park and today their reforestation project extends throughout the valley. “That was when I became an environment activist, aware of the fundamental importance of the challenge, and which naturally made me want to work on this subject. »
And this would become the new driving force of his career, the “Genesis” project that would take him to the four corners of the globe to photograph the beauty and grandeur of the still undamaged landscapes, animal life and human communities that continue to live according to their ancestral cultures and traditions. Eight years of work and hundreds of images, each one more exquisite than the next, on this quest for our ancient world, whose fragile beauty is at the mercy of the over-riding inconsistencies of the dominant species. “Mankind’s actions on this planet are completely destroying it, we may be living through the most important moment in our history right now.” No bitterness in his voice, nor any false optimism either, just the words of an impassioned man, determined to carry out the mission he has set himself: to bear witness through his art.
THE DIGNITY OF WORKERS
When Sebastião arrived in Paris with Lélia in 1969, he was an economist and soon began working for a London investment bank in charge of agricultural development in Africa. It was there that he took his first pictures and decided to give up everything to pursue photography. “I come from the Third World and as an economist I was aware of globalization. It was the end of manual labour in the West and developing countries were taking over these industries. And so I showed this world, that of workers and their dignity because they had a right to greater consideration and respect and a more equitable share of the economy. It was a kind of archaeology of the end of the first industrial age. When I took these photographs, I was sure I was witnessing the end of an era, it was a tribute to the working class, a concept which was extremely important in my background as a macro-economist who studied the workings of production. »
These include the famous images of the Serra Pelada gold mine, textile workers or shipbreakers in Bangladesh or the oil-covered bodies of oil well workers in Kuwait after the first Gulf War….
During his many travels he also became increasingly aware of the escalation of migration flows, another major subject of his work. Among the many iconic images, the harrowing image of a woman’s face, the dark light emphasizing dead eyes, destroyed by sandstorms and infection as she fled the famine in the Sahel.
But is photography still as relevant to telling the story as ever? “Of course it is! Digital technology has changed things, but what we do with mobile phones is not photography, it’s communication of images, it’s virtual. Photography is something tangible, something that can be printed out, touched and thus it constitutes a memory. I am convinced that photojournalism still has a major role to play. Those migrant children who were found drowned on the beaches of the Mediterranean, it is photography that has secured them in our conscience.»
Text: Jules Février / Sebastiao Salgado