The timeless poetry of Sebastiao Salgado's photographs

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 24 May 2014

A homage to the pristine beauty of far-flung corners of the world through photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s lens.

AT the turn of the millennium, famed Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado made up his mind to go back in time.

The 70-year-old, well-known for his marathon photo projects on gritty social issues such as migrant communities and manual labourers, had set his sights on a new mission – to document a world and a way of life as it was in the beginning, where man lived in and with nature as one.

His quest to capture the pristine beauty of the world became an epic 12-year project titled Genesis.

He spent four years on intense research, planning and fund-raising to meet the project’s budget of 8mil (RM35.2mil). In the following eight years, he made perilous expeditions to 32 remote countries and regions where he faced extreme climates and diets, and a few close shaves with death.

It was anything but a walk in paradise, but the hardbitten photographer never gave up. “I had a big motivation to do this story and I was willing to accept anything,” he said at the recent Asian premiere of Genesis at the National Museum of Singapore.

Iceberg between the Paulet Island and the Shetland Island, Antartica.

The source of his quenchless drive: a visceral experience of the marvellous resurrection of 810ha of forest land that his family owns in Brazil.

Salgado, who was largely based in Europe, returned to his childhood home in Brazil in 1998 after completing a gruelling photo project, Exodus, on people fleeing genocides. The brutality he witnessed on the job had sickened him thoroughly and he sought respite in the familiar.

The verdant rainforest that gave him great pleasure as a child, however, was no longer – industrial activity had turned it into barren land.

So with his wife, Lelia Deluiz Wanick, 66, they set about planting trees to reforest the land, determined to return it to its former lushness. The transformation came quickly.

He added, his voice rising with excitement: “We saw the coming back of nature, the water, the birds, the mammals, the crocodiles, everything came back. And that gave me a wish to photograph again, but to photograph nature, what was pristine in the planet.”

He had stumbled on some of these secluded, little-known pockets of Eden while working on past photo projects, including a spectacular habitat of gorillas in an area bordering Rwanda and Congo, and he knew he had to return to these “incredible places” to photograph for Genesis.

He also conducted in-depth research in the archives of non-profit environmental organisation Conservation International in the United States and Unesco’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, to identify places where nature remains unsullied and human communities untouched by modern-day progress.

That was the first of many steps taken to create Genesis.

Together with his team of nine at Amazonas images, a Paris-based press agency he set up in 1994 to manage his work, he also had to seek permits from various authorities to enter inaccessible locations and find anthropologists or linguists working with tribes in the areas who were willing to broker introductions and spend up to three months on the expeditions as translators.

Each trip also required elaborate route-planning, coordination of manpower and, sometimes, arrangements for emergency help to be on stand-by.

Fishermen on Piulaga Lake, Mato Grosso in Brazil.

For example, on an expedition to north Ethiopia where Salgado walked 850km over hilly terrain that had not been crossed by man in recent times, an Ethiopian marathon runner had to be roped in to help carry fragile equipment and arrangements had to be made for helicopters to be on hand for any emergency. Fortunately, there was none.

But there were narrow escapes in the eight years, from ground that gave way easily underfoot in a mountainous region in Venezuela because of soft soil, to a steep, snow-covered hill in Argentina that he crossed alone and nearly slipped and fell.

Once, he was in Botswana photographing wildlife from a helicopter when his camera equipment caused his safety belt to come undone.

“I was about to drop from the helicopter,” he revealed, “when my assistant grabbed me and brought me back in. Phew.”

Beyond close shaves with danger, he also had to overcome tests of endurance. The 47 days he spent photographing a group of Nenets, an indigenous people in northern arctic Russia, and the 7,000 reindeers they were herding, were particularly memorable. He said: “It was incredible in that it was very difficult in those temperatures, varying between minus 45 deg C and minus 35 deg C. As a Brazilian going to this very cold place, I was afraid. You’re trapped with ice around you all day long.”

It did not help that the many layers of clothing he brought with him were useless against the cold. The Nenets, noticing how cold he looked on the second day, gave him coats made of reindeer skin. “The way they made it, you are always hot and it was possible for me to stay outside for eight hours a day with them.”

The diet also took getting used to. He said: “Every four to five days, they kill a reindeer by strangulation. Then they open the reindeer, take out all the intestines immediately and everyone sits around with a small cup and drinks the hot blood of the reindeer. After that, they slice the heart, liver, kidneys and eat them straightaway.” The rest of the meat is cooked, stored in snow and consumed over the next few days.”

While the experiences were novel, they did not surprise the well-prepared Salgado. He mentioned: “You must know where you are going and you must read a lot beforehand. You must be really prepared for the place you believe in and have real pleasure being there because for a project like this of eight years, if you don’t have a deep sense of identification with it, you cannot do it, you cannot hold out in a place for months living in small camps, sleeping in hammocks.

“And you ask me about food? In reality, you eat with your mind. Your mind must be prepared for what you are going to be eating.”

The journey, though, did bring unexpected epiphanies. For example, he was amazed by the placid bond between the Nenets and their bitter environment.

“I was asking the questions every day, ‘What will happen tomorrow? How will I survive in the middle of this cold weather?’ And for them, it was so normal, so natural.”

He added: “The Nenets travel with minimal stuff because they cannot bring with them many things, which are carried by the reindeers, and I learnt from them the concept of what is essential.”

For him, it would be his two bags of photography gear, each weighing 25kg and packed with two cameras (he uses Canon EOS 1DX) and two spares, an assortment of camera lenses that he needs, solar panels to charge his batteries and a few camera repair tools.

Film negatives would have been in those bags too, until 2008, when he switched to working with digital cameras. It was a pivotal change that came as he found himself close to giving up on Genesis.

Tightened airport security in the years following Sept 11, 2001, subjected the film negatives he carried to multiple X-ray screenings.

“Once, when I left Sumatra for Paris, I crossed seven X-rays. It’s no problem to put your film through an X-ray once, but after two or three times, it starts to affect the film ... it became hell. For a moment in 2008, I might have given up Genesis.”

But he adapted quickly to the new technology and the transition made travelling through airports a breeze. He said: “At the end of the digital process, I finish off with one negative and we get away with having exactly the same quality or probably better than when I photograph directly with film.”

What also remains unchanged is the grainy film-like quality of his black-and-white images, a signature since his early days with news photography agencies in the 1970s, where high-speed film used to capture fleeting moments resulted in a grainy look.

Salgado, a former economist turned self-taught photographer who works only in natural light, said: “I introduce the grain of the film that I used to work with into the digital work because I was made with it. For me, the look with this grain is complete and it gives an aesthetic quality to my pictures that makes it special.

“Some times people say, ‘Oh, you create a kind of pattern’. But it’s not a pattern, it’s a film that I’ve worked with my whole life and this film dictates the pattern.”

This timeless poetry sweeps across the 245 images in the Genesis exhibition, which was curated by his wife.

While some critics and viewers of the Genesis exhibition, which opened in Europe last year, may charge that the heightened majesty and fragility of the images romanticise nature and man, Salgado remains nonchalant about their reactions.

He said: “Each photographer takes an image in his own way. You photograph with your past, your future, your religion. I photograph my way, I have not two ways to photograph.

“If people like it, they like it. If they don’t like it, they criticise, but that is not my problem.”

Neither is he interested in being seen as an artist with a message, although Genesis points to a way to turn back the clock on a relationship between man, earth and wildlife that has been largely lost with urbanisation.

Salgado, who just returned last month from photographing a new series about Indian tribes in the Amazon, is self-deprecating about his work.

He said: “I’m nothing, I’m just a photographer and it’s a big privilege to be a photographer.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

Sebastiao Salgado's Genesis exhibition is on at the National Museum of Singapore (No. 93, Stamford Road, Singapore) till July 27. Opening times: 10am to 6pm daily; admission is free. More info at

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