An exemplar of the tradition of 'concerned photography', Sebastião Salgado is one of the most widely-respected of contemporary photojournalists. His in-depth bodies of work document the lives of people the world over, finding beauty, strength and hope even in those in the bleakest of circumstances.
He has spent his life taking epic, mind-swarming photographs of gold mines, oil fields and genocide. But now Salgado is turning his lens on the planet’s last undamaged places.
Salgado was born on a farm in the state of Minas Gerais in southeast Brazil. He and his wife Lélia Wanick studied in Paris, where their studio is still based. It is very much a collaborative enterprise: Lélia designs the beautifully structured books through which Salgado tells what he calls his “stories”. More recently, they have worked together to replant a section of Brazilian forest on the farm where he grew up. Yet he never studied photography or art – he has a PhD in economics. It was while travelling the world for the International Coffee Organisation in the 70s that he had that epiphany when he looked through a viewfinder and fell in love with photography.
“The human animal is a political animal,” he says, and his humanitarianism is unmistakable in his pictures of crises and endangered ways of life. But he insists he is not motivated by “activism”. Instead, what he stresses is the sheer fun of what he does. Photography has taken him all over the world, has been his passport to see astonishing things, people, places. He remembers standing in the Kuwait desert photographing oil wells on fire after the first Gulf war. It was an incredible spectacle. “All these wells burning - all the adventure to be there.”
Looking at Salgado’s most memorable pictures – not least his hellish scenes of the blazing oil wells – you are punched in the stomach by reality. Special effects can create all kinds of cheap magic. Yet Salgado shows raw, real events that outdo digital fantasy. That shocking, sensational, or utterly poetic moment of truth is what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”. How does he catch them? To get great shots, he says, you “need a lot of time”. You have to put yourself where things are going to happen, and get into the flow of events, the mood of people. “You know where you’ll go, but you don’t know what you will bring back.” When the subject does suddenly appear, you have to be ready – and fast. “Photography is one 250th of a second,” says Salgado. And so much can go wrong. “There are a lot of variables. There must be light. There must be power. There must be personality if it’s a portrait.”
The picture is not being taken by a passive camera, though. It’s by the person holding the camera. And this may be what makes Salgado so special: the economics PhD, the political idealism, the connection with nature and the past that comes from his forest childhood – he somehow gets all that into the picture, somehow puts his soul into the image. “In this moment, you bring your history and your ideas to what is in front of you. That is a photograph.”
Salgado, in that instant when “photography freezes things”, transmits his own vision of a vast, suffering, interlinked planet. The grandeur of his crowd scenes is heartbreaking. People fade into the distance among the tents of a refugee camp. They process exhausted along a jungle road. They lie dead, uncountable, in his most horrific photographs of genocide in Rwanda. Always, there is a sense of depth and scale, of the hugeness of human history and the story of the Earth itself. He gets the superb depth of field that makes his pictures so haunting with techniques he has learned over a lifetime:
“I work with very fast film. I always close my diaphragm to give a huge depth of field. Volumes for me are very important.” The result, the expansive yet immensely detailed scope of his pictures, is what makes them so moving. The migrants are moving through a forest, too tired to think. Some have collapsed by the pathway. Behind them, so many more are coming. Fear fills the air. “Reality,” says Salgado, “is full of depth of field.”
Salgado returned to his native Brazil to take over his family’s ranch in the Minas Gerais region nearly 30 years ago after documenting the harrowing genocide in Rwanda. Since he'd left, very little of the forest surrounding the ranch remained, so he he and Lélia decided to replant the forest. Now 20 years later, the 1,754-acre plot of land is the lush and verdant forest Salgado remembered as a child.
The abundant forest he remembered as a boy had shrivelled down so much only 0.5 per cent of the land was covered with trees.
He told the Guardian: ‘The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed.’
Restoring the land to its former glory would be a mammoth task, so in 1998 the Salgados set up the Instituto Terra – an organisation ‘dedicated to the sustainable development of the Valley of the River Doce.’
Now the area has status as a Private Natural Heritage Reserve and is home to 172 types of birds, 33 varieties of mammals and 15 kinds of reptiles and amphibians.
Hundreds of species of trees and plants now grow there, dried up springs have started flowing again and the micro-climate has changed.
Reflecting on the success of the project, Salgado said: ‘All the insects and birds and fish returned, and, thanks to this increase of the trees, I too, was reborn – this was the most important moment.’
Salgado thinks a ‘spiritual return to our planet’ is needed to save it from destruction and says replanting forests with trees, which turn CO2 to oxygen, is one answer to climate change.
He added: ‘We need to replant the forest. You need forest with native trees, and you need to gather the seeds in the same region you plant them or the serpents and the termites won’t come.
‘And if you plant forests that don’t belong, the animals don’t come there and the forest is silent.’