Sebastiao Salgado's Genesis
Sebastiao Salgado never does things by half and his latest project, Genesis, which has its world premiere at the Natural History Museum in London this week, is photography on an epic scale. It comprises more than 200 prints selected from eight years' work, shot in 32 countries.
The pictures are unmistakably Salgado's, shimmering prints that seem to leap out of the gallery walls. Each one engages and entices you to look closer, to take your time and enjoy the subject as well as the tonality.
The project's title, Genesis, is about Salgado attempting to capture the planet as it once was, unspoilt landscapes, wildlife and remote communities that live as their ancestors did.
You could argue that these pictures present a world that does not really exist, a fairy tale, though you could also argue that most photographs are constructed to some degree or another, and stand or fall on the intention behind the work.
"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," says Salgado. "I wanted to present places that were untouched and remain so to this day."
End Quote Sebastiao Salgado
In Bhutan, I spent two months walking over 600km 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”
His previous two major long-term projects, Workers and Migrations, both centre on people and their struggle against both the land in which they live and their economic situation. This work does not; it is very much a celebration of what is left, and what once was, and perhaps what could be. "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," says Salgado.
And indeed he does that, though there is a danger that the pictures could become little more than a spectacle for our visual delight.
"I don't want to provoke debate," says Salgado. "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 any more, so we must turn back the clock to come closer to nature. We need to recover our instincts, to learn more about nature."
Salgado is aware of his responsibilities as a photographer and also aware he can use his pictures to make a difference. With his wife Leila he set up an environmental organisation, Instituto Terra, in Brazil in the 1990s. This works on the restoration of a part of the Atlantic Forest and has helped establish a nature reserve.
"We started to replant the rainforest and today we have a little bit more than two million trees with more than 300 native species. And now you see an incredible amount of birds come back to this forest," he says.
His interest in nature stems from watching the destruction of the rainforests of his childhood in Brazil, but rather than focus on destruction he offers a view of a seemingly idyllic lifestyle and landscape. "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."