Sebastião Salgado

The monochrome master on his search for environmental equilibrium

Photography Q+A

Taken from the May Issue of Dazed & Confused:

Sebastião Salgado‘s stark black-and- white images depicting the effects of poverty, war and famine have challenged perceptions of those living in the global south for decades. Born in Brazil in 1944, he studied economics in São Paolo, where he became active in leftwing movements against the then incumbent military government. Fearing for his safety, he fled to Paris in 1969 with his wife, Lélia Wanick, and subsequently worked as an economist for the International Coffee Organisation. He took his first photographs in 1970 after borrowing Wanick’s Pentax Spotmatic; three years later he became a professional photographer, and by 1979 he was a member of famedphotographiccollective Magnum, alongside such luminaries as co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson. Influenced by his background as a leftwing economist, his major photo essays, Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000), are global studies of the radical inequalities caused by economic instability, both of which took years to put together. His latest, Genesis, has taken eight years to complete, and sent him to some of the remotest parts of world, including the Antarctic, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. Prior to Genesis’s debut exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, he spoke to Dazed from his studio in Paris. 

What is Genesis about?

It’s about the ecological equilibrium of the planet. While we have destroyed perhaps half of our natural environments, a large part of them survives. And of course, these places are not always easy to reach – like the Antarctic, the Amazon and the desert. So I visited them to discover what was there.

Your previous work has addressed human relationships to the planet and each other. Genesis appears to focus on the natural world. Why have you shifted focus?

Well, in the 1990s, my wife and I started the Instituto Terra in Brazil, with the aim of restoring the ecosystem of land that had been farmed by replanting forest that had once existed. Through this foundation I became so close to the planet that I started to think about doing another kind of story. The stories I had previously photographed had been inspired by my background as an economist and by my ideological beliefs. However, after the experience of starting the Instituto Terra, I wanted to document scenes that showed the reality of the paradox that humanity exists in. Today, we live in incredible comfort and enjoy the benefits of modern technology, but to create these things, we have to destroy a lot of forests, rivers and oceans.

Do these pictures depict your resignation from modernity and the progress it implies?

Modernity is a part of our life. It would be very difficult to go back to living how we did, say, 5,000 years ago. But when I visited these areas I saw people that were living in equilibrium with their environment, and it was a curiosity. I don’t want to change anyone’s mentality. I only want to present what I found. Perhaps one of the preoccupations that steered the project was my belief that we are using the earth’s resources at a rate that it cannot sustain. So our wish was to stimulate discussion about changing the way we protect the planet’s environment, and I hope that through these pictures people see the earth differently.

One of your subjects was a tribe of the Xingu, an indigenous people living in northern brazil. How did you contact them?

All the different tribes of the Xingu people have representatives at the National Indian Foundation, part of the Brazilian Ministry of Justice. Elsewhere in Brazil there are around 30-50 groups of indigenous peoples that have yet to be contacted – and I believe that we cannot force such contact. Some of them clearly know about our civilisation but do not want to be disturbed. Nonetheless, the group I photographed was actually contacted sometime after the 1950s. Interestingly, at one point members of this tribe actually went to work in urban areas, but eventually they returned to the forest. Today, they live in the national park and are protected by the government. Sometimes they wear familiar clothing, like t-shirts. But when I was photographing the Indians I tried to capture them in their ceremonial clothes and in their daily lives, where they exist in equilibrium with nature.

I don’t believe that my photos alone can change things. But these pictures can help; they can be a part of a movement toward change

There’s one photo of a woman posing naked inside a tent in quite a vulnerable way. Was it difficult to take such intimate shots? 

The tribe that I photographed does not share the same Christian values with regards to sex as perhaps you and I do. Many of these tribes are completely naked most of the time, and they posed for me how they wished. When you photograph them, you do so inside their daily life. And they don’t censor themselves – they just live their life. They do not have the concept of repression inherited from religion.

Before becoming a photographer, you studied economics and were very leftwing. Are you still a radical? 

I’m not, no. When I was young I was a communist, of course. At that time in Latin America, people had to choose between either supporting oppressive dictatorships or to fight against them. My activist colleagues from that period now occupy prominent positions within Brazil – two previous Brazilian presidents were fellow activists. Being a Marxist and an economist has definitely affected my photography, but I’m not radical any more. I still use those activist ideas as a point of analysis when taking photographs. For example, I decided to do the Workers project because of the gross inequalities that the iron-ore market was creating in Brazil. Similarly, in Rwanda I documented workers in the coffee and tea industry. These people went to work at six or seven in the morning, working 12-hour days. They had no shoes, no education, no gas and no social security. But they were exporting their products at a negative price, which must seem shocking to people living in richer countries. Contrary to what we might think when we buy these products from the shelf, the price we pay does not just arrive with it on import, but is decided afterwards. This type of exploitation makes people very poor in these parts of the world.

Do you think artists are able to stimulate the sort of social change necessary to address these problems? 

I don’t believe that my photos alone can change things. But when accompanied with text and analysis and commentary from journalists, academics and politicians, these pictures can help; they can be part of a movement toward change.

Do you still retain optimism for humanity’s ability to progress to a fairer and more equal society?

Many years ago, after finishing Migrations, I did not. I became very pessimistic about humanity. But working through the Instituto Terra, we have replanted two million trees, saved jaguars and restored an area that was completely dead – the last animals that lived there left 40 years ago. Today, I sincerely believe that if we question the way we are living and begin to replant the forests and protect our water sources, we can change things. If governments and corporations and rich people participate in reconstituting the ecosystem, things can happen. Ultimately, we are an animal like any animal, and all animals are mobile. Yet in our society we are doing everything we can to stop being mobile – we work at desks, we drive in cars, we speak to people over phones... But through the participation of governments and institutions we can change the situation very quickly. I have big hopes. But I don’t believe we can achieve this in isolation. We must do it through governments and private and public and local institutions, and with companies. We point the finger at private companies, but we are the biggest consumers!

Photography: Stephano Marchionini

GENESIS is out now, published by Taschen. The accompanying Natural History Museum exhibition runs until September 8. 

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