I first became aware of Salgardo’s work when attending a mini exhibition of his platinum prints with an accompanying talk on the platinum print process hosted by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, that visit is documented in a sketchbook.
The prints were all from his project “Genesis” a long term project he has undertaken to photograph the beauty of the world. “It’s my love letter to the planet,” says Sebastião Salgado, the project was completed on 32 separate trips over eight years.
The complicated relationship between humans and their environment has been apparent in previous projects, such as Workers and Migrations.
However these earlier works tended to show the more negative impact on both humans and the environment and Salgardo made the point he felt that constantly showing death, destruction and related topics ultimately affected his own health to the point where he actually retired and returned to his native Brazil on the family farm in a remote location.
He was shocked to discover that the very rural, natural environment of his youth was largely destroyed – when he was a child 6% of the family farm was virgin rain forest – all now gone. He felt this was a consequence of the wider social changes that Brazil had undergone in the past few decades moving rapidly from a rural economy to an industrial one at an extremely rapid pace in comparison to the industrial revolution in Western Europe – he spent many years in France – that had occurred over 100’s of years as opposed to decades.
The impact of this change had created tensions and pressures on the population and hence the environment which meant there had been little concern for the future.
It inspired him to restore the farm and he created a charitable foundation to help this process and amongst its achievements is the planting of 2.5 million trees and the creation of a seed bank as a national resource for Brazil to help re-populate areas destroyed by industrial scale felling of the trees that are an essential part of the worlds, and not just Brasil’s Eco-system.
Salgardo stated that this process of restoration and conversation of his own environment was a major factor in him recovering his personal health and inspired him to take up photography again and directly led to the Genesis project with a deliberate aim of showing the positive rather than the negative aspcts of life on earth.
“It’s about beginnings. It’s 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 want to show people our wonderful planet and hope that they can experience what I did, 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.” (http://www.wanderlust.couk, 2017)
The Genesis book, published by Taschen, features 250 images of landscapes and wildlife, alongside depictions of human communities that continue to live ‘in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures’.
Asked about the 8 years the project took he was dismissive – its the blink of the eye compared to the age of the planet and even spending 8 months a year on the road he could only sample a few places in the depth he would like to. His process was to immerse himself in the environment he was visiting, particularly where he was dealing with communities to gain their trust before taking images of their lifestyle.
“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. I was surprised at how similar we all are; I wanted to show that even the most isolated group of people are the same as we are…….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, to inspire people to want to preserve the planet…..After these eight years, I am able to better relate to our planet. Everything that is alive has a sort of rationality about it. Birds know what they need to do to survive and even trees know how to resist the wind and to adapt to different climates.” (www.wanderlust.co.uk, 2017)
One very interesting point made by him was that if you take the 250 final images and assume they were taken at an average of 1/50th of a second they represent 5 seconds of elapsed time. He felt very strongly that the art of a photographer was to bring all your personal history and experience to bear in that 1/50th of a second and that would shape the quality of the final image.
He spoke passionately about this aspect of his work, asked if any other photographers had inspired him he simply said “No” which although met with wry laughter from the audience he went on to explain that he understood and had explored Cartier Bressons concept of the decisive moment, having explored many of Cartier Bresson’s locations in Paris, he argued strongle that he applied it in a different way that was unique to him and encouraged the audience to seek out their own definitive style and not merely copy what had gone before.
An inspirational talk from an inspirational photographer and man.
PS I had taken my copy of Genesis hoping to get it signed, this proved fruitless at his first speech as he was whisked away after over running his allotted time. However he was also appearing at the Canon stand but that proved to be equally crowded, hanging around I asked a Canon staff member if there was any chance of getting a book signed to be told Salgardo would be doing a very under advertised signing in a few minutes on the Canon stand. This was limited to around 25 people and I am happy to report I was one of the lucky few!