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Antarctic Peninsula, 2005. Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastião Salgado: Genesis

10 April 2013 Rachel Ridge

“Genesis is a call to arms for us to preserve what we have. Of course it is not possible to ask people to go back to live in the forest: but we can preserve and protect this, our real heritage.”- Sebastião Salgado

It was eight years ago that Sebastião Salgado began Genesis. The strikingly beautiful images were made up of the 69-year-old photographer’s incessant journeys to the ends of the earth, intent on capturing the untarnished face of nature. This pilgrimage of sorts took him to the most untouched parts of the world where he lived among the giant tortoises and marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands and the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

From the Kayura shamans of Brazil to the naked pacifist Indians of the southern Amazon, Salgado embodied the rhythms of communities that continue to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures. His most trying adventure was joining the Nenets of Siberia in a harsh journey of sub -50c temperatures, travelling through the tundra for reindeer.

Salgado believes it’s humanity’s disconnect with nature that is modern life’s biggest tragedy, he thinks “what made us survive all these hundreds of thousands of years is our spirituality; the link to our land. Today, we are isolated, and we must do something about this!”

Beginning his career as a professional photographer in 1973, his work has been one long dedication to the tragedies and impending problems facing wildlife and humanity. His previous project; Exodus, was a six-year labour documenting civilians fleeing from war, famine and natural disaster. It’s fair to say, Salgado is not so much a photographer but a dynamic force towards environmental change, recently giving a TED talk on “Why we must rebuild our rainforests”; he has now been appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

Genesis, as Salgado puts it “is a call to arms for us to preserve what we have. Of course it is not possible to ask people to go back to live in the forest: but we can preserve and protect this, our real heritage.” Genesis shows photography at its most hauntingly real, most powerful, and most likely to carry the urgent message of its author to the world.

 

Why is the exhibition called Genesis, and what is it about?

Genesis is about beginnings. It is about the unspoiled planet, the most pristine parts, and a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature – the way we used to be. I wanted to present places that were untouched and remain so to this day. I chose the name Genesis to represent this. It is not supposed to be provocative. It has no religious meaning. It refers only to the beginning of everything.

 

What do you hope to convey through these photographs?

I want people to see our planet in another way, to feel moved and be brought closer to it. I want them to become more conscious of the environment, to feel respect for nature because this is something that is relevant to everyone. We can only preserve it together and I think this sort of documentation should be of interest to everybody.

 

Why did you decide to embark on this eight-year project and how does it feel to have finally completed it?

Eight years is not a long time compared to the age of our planet. I spent two years researching to find the most untouched landscapes before setting off. My wish was to see those places that modern life hasn’t touched, to find sanctuaries from the ravages of economic growth. I wanted to spend at least two months in each place to really get to know it. I calculated that I could do four trips a year, making a total of 32 trips in eight years. I spent at least eight months of each year on the road, taking photographs. Even in this time, I could only really sample a few places.

 

How much did current environmental debate influence your photographs?

The environment was, of course, the inspiration for this project. Since we set up our environmental organisation, Instituto Terra, in Brazil in the 1990s, I have taken a great interest in nature. I saw that the rainforests of my childhood were destroyed and I wanted to do something about it. The idea came to me that we should show the incredible beauty of nature, not just the destruction that is going on, but also to inspire people to want to preserve the planet. In a sense, we humans are the biggest ‘predator’ of the planet. We are the ones consuming the resources and products it provides. We only care about ourselves, our comfort and our needs. We can’t just criticise the companies that pollute and destroy nature, because we are the ones consuming their products and justifying their activities – and through the stock market we are, in the last instance, the ‘owners’ of these same companies.

 

What were some of the challenges along the way?

On an eight-year journey, there were a lot of challenges, especially in some of the world’s most faraway places. When I started, one of the biggest challenges for me was photographing landscapes, trees and animals, something that I have never done before. The second challenge was finding places that were not yet destroyed.  In Bhutan, I spent two months walking over 600 kilometres in the Himalayas but, because of the monsoon rains, I could not use many of the photos I took there – they were not representative of how truly beautiful the area was. When we were in Papua New Guinea, there was the constant threat of malaria. One of my assistants was stung by an insect and his leg turned black. He was sent back to Paris and hospitalised for two months. We were afraid he would lose his leg. Many of the trips were cold and very tough, but worth it because the places offered such important images. 

 

What was the most memorable place you photographed and why?

I have been so fortunate to see so many wonderful things. The journey was almost like an immense gift to myself. Being back in Brazil was fabulous. We were with the tribesmen of southern Amazonia, sharing their lives in the forest, fishing in the rivers and sleeping in hammocks under the trees. We had incredible moments. These past eight years have been some of the most intense, interesting and beautiful years of my life. One of the most inspiring places was actually the Colorado Plateau in the United States. A beautiful landscape, it has been turned into a protected area but each year millions of people are still able to see it for themselves, leaving only their footprints behind. It is so nice to see this sort of conservation in action.

 

Which are your favourite sets of images? 

The photographs are like my children. I cannot pick any in particular because all 250 in the exhibition help to tell a story. Each one represents a moment, while the whole work speaks for an eight-year slice of my life, more so than any of my other long-term projects. 

 

Why did you decide to capture images of indigenous peoples? What were you trying to show?

I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I am just a photographer. I wanted to show how some people are living in equilibrium with the planet, as we did thousands of years ago. They help to represent an idea of Genesis. Some of the tribes were more affected by the contact with modern society than others. I was surprised at how similar we all are and want to show that even the most isolated group of people are the same as we are. We are the same species from the same planet. We share the same needs. We love in the same way and, though of course on different scales, we all take from nature. 

 

What is it about the natural world that you found so inspiring?

Everything about nature is inspiring. Everything that is alive has a sort of rationality about it. I found it in the cormorant, the albatross, in every animal. Birds know what they need to do to survive and even trees know how to resist the wind and to adapt to different climates. To stay alive, they know to shed their leaves when the climate is dry or to protect themselves when it is cold. I learnt a lot about nature. I discovered so many things I was ignorant of before but, after these eight years, I am able to better relate to our planet. Take the picture of the iguana’s hand as an example. As an animal, it looks so different to humans. But if you look at its hand, it has five fingers, just like our own. It looks almost like the hand of a warrior in a chain-mail glove from the Middle Ages. We all evolved from the same beginnings. 

 

Why did you decide to open Genesis at the Natural History Museum in London?

It was my dream to open the exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London. I love the Museum so much. When I lived here during the 1970s, I visited the Museum many times. I think it is the most beautiful museum on the planet. I also think that the Museum conveys the same messages as Genesis and people come here to be in awe of nature.The Museum’s links with Darwin and the study of evolution are also important to me. I actually started my journey in the Galápagos, as did Darwin, and followed the Beagle’s route around the islands and went to the same places. I tried to understand what he came to understand about the evolution of the species.  All of this explains my delight at having the world premiere of the show at the Natural History Museum.

 

What do you hope to achieve by exhibiting these photographs?

I don’t want to provoke debate. I just want people to feel closer to our planet. We are all so out of touch. We don’t feel part of the planet anymore, so we must turn back the clock to come closer to nature. We need to recover our instincts, to learn more about nature.

 

Do you think photography can play a role in changing the way we think about our planet?

I don’t want to convince anyone about anything, only to show people our wonderful planet and hope that they can experience what I did. I think the environment should be inside everyone’s heads, something we think about in everything we do. We should all be environmentalists. 

 

What is your next photographic project?

I take photos of ideas and things that I totally believe in and can identify with as a person. For example, as a migrant myself, the Migrations project was a way of showing part of my own life. I have spent many years living in a foreign country far away from my home. For the Workers project, I used my economics background to tell the story of how large-scale producers feed the massive global economy. 

 

Genesis is showing at The Natural History Museum from 11 April -  8 September 2013. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

 

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