As his new exhibition opens in Dublin, Sebastião Salgado tells Pádraic Killeen why he has greater hope for the environment
“I don’t see myself as an activist. I’m a photographer. I’m just a photographer.”
THAT Sebastião Salgado, perhaps the most renowned figure in modern photojournalism, can describe himself as “just a photographer” is not a polite show of modesty.
It is just how the man regards himself. For the Brazilian, photography dissolves the distinctions between what he sees around him and who he is. So when he says that “photography is my life”, he doesn’t mean simply that it is his obsession. In the keenest sense possible, he means that it is a basic and vital aspect of how he lives, and so, necessarily, it chimes with everything else that concerns him.
As he puts it: “My photography is coherent with my way of thinking, and with the moment of my life.”
The reason someone might mistake Salgado for an activist, of course, is due to his four decades working in social documentary photography. An heir to conscientious photographers such as Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, Salgado has over the years produced a number of extraordinary black-and-white studies of labour and migration, and its consequences worldwide. Having abandoned a career in economics in the early 1970s to pursue photography, he went on to win acclaim for his epic glimpse of life in the Serra Palada mines of Brazil and his devastating images of the drought in the Sahel region of Africa.
Of late, the Brazilian’s subject matter has become more focused on environmental issues and it is this concern that has brought him to the Gallery of Photography in Dublin. His latest exhibition, Amazon, has just gone on display here. A provocative collection of photos taken amongst four tribes in the threatened rainforests of his native Brazil, Amazon also features a new selection of images from Swedish photographer Per-Anders Pettersson. The exhibition is in aid of Sky Rainforest Rescue, a partnership between broadcasting giant Sky and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) that aims to save one billion trees in the Brazilian state of Acre.
This is a campaign close to Salgado’s heart. Since the 1990s, he and his wife Lélia have been working on a similar large-scale project of reforestation, via their organisation, the Terra Institute. To date, they have planted more than a million trees.
Notably, Salgado’s images in Amazon are part of a larger study, Genesis, which he has been working on for eight years and is now on the verge of completing. The project has seen him travel to the most remote areas of the world — among them the Antarctic and the Namib desert in Africa — in search of the environment at its most pristine.
The eight years, he says, were akin to returning to school. “I discovered the relationship I had with all this wildlife, all this forest, and all these animals,” he says. “I learned a lot and I finish now something that was really great in my life.”
Though his new work seeks the unspoiled, nobody should mistake Salgado for a techno-phobic romantic. For instance, he celebrates the advances in digital technology that allow him to pack the equivalent of a thousand rolls of film in a handful of digital memory cards. Yet he believes that humanity — in its thirst for discovery and innovation — has lost sight of itself and its relation to nature. “We are a species that must discover, but we have yet to discover who we are. We are very special. When you see the other species, they are there, they are transparent. We see how they behave. But we don’t know how we behave. We see only the back of everything.”
He confesses that there have been times when he has been pessimistic about our future. He recalls reaching a low ebb around the time he launched his Exodus project in 1999. That exhibition was the result of six years capturing images of migrants from four continents as they fled famine, war, and natural disaster. “I came out of that project certain that this was the end for us, that the human species could no longer survive, that it was programmed in our species to finish,” he says.
What lifted him, however, was the progress he was making at the Terra Institute. “We were starting to plant the first trees in Brazil, and that brought so much hope. When we started this project, every farmer around us made jokes about how we had bought the land of our parents and had transformed it into a national park. Today, when we hold meetings we have 400 or 500 farmers there. They are complete addicts to the project. They’re part of it now. And they were not ‘bad guys’. They just were not informed.”
Education is a key element of what the Terra Institute does in the region. “Education is the centre of everything.” In recent years, large strides have been made in terms of protecting the Amazon, particularly in Brazil, but Salgado points out that while the Amazon is the frontline, the greatest destruction is not going on there but in forests in places such as Indonesia, Sumatra and Borneo.
Nevertheless, he is now more optimistic. He credits Al Gore with helping to alter the mentality of people on environmental issues. “There is no comparison between the environmental movement today and the same movement 20 years ago. Things are going in an interesting direction.”
He believes that if serious progress is to be made, and our detrimental effect on the environment is to be stemmed, it is important that there is cooperation between the environmental groups and corporations. More generally, he says, we all have to accept that we are responsible and to acknowledge that “the idea that you have a car, that you have this glass, that we need oil to heat us” is itself the problem.
His images in Amazon and elsewhere, he hopes, can further this discourse. Like most of his work, these images — captured in the crisp black-and-white he has made his trademark — are notable for their resistance to an abstraction that might allow the viewer to become too cerebral and detached. Instead his images are usually pressing and accessible. They have beguiling formal qualities, yes, and are extremely expressive, but they are also, like Salgado, unpretentious. A photograph, he insists, should never be judged solely on aesthetic terms. It is bound up in much more than that.
“The aesthetic of photography is an instantaneous aesthetic, You take a picture in a fraction of a second and then you see it. It is materialised. It is there. All of you is inside it. All your past is inside. Your mother, your father, and everything, is inside this picture. That is the point of photography — it is there. I can’t apologise that I am not another photographer, because it’s me, this photography.”
* Amazon, featuring photographs by Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson, is at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin until April 1
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