Sebastiao Salgado: Capturing light through a journey of darkness

Sebastiao Salgado: Capturing light through a journey of darkness

May 07, 2016

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Roberta Fedele
Saudi Gazette

Absorbed by our daily life and identified with ethno-cultural labels, we tend to forget our status as tiny, interconnected particles within a universe that is a single living organism, one big sea of energy. The powerful, Brazilian black and white photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, uses the universal language of photography to remind us of the reality of the planet and the dignity of every living being.
“Like music, photography is a direct language that doesn’t need translation. What you ‘write’ through photography in Saudi Arabia can be ‘read’ in Brazil or Japan. Photography narrates the real history of humanity. It’s the mirror of our societies,” Salgado said during a recent trip to Saudi Arabia with his son, Rodrigo, and his wife and creative partner, Lelia Deluiz Wanick, to attend an exceptional solo exhibition of his photographs in Jeddah organized by Hafez Gallery and curated by Lelia.
It doesn’t happen every day for a photographer to access a beautiful yet closed and unknown country like Saudi Arabia, especially a photographer like Salgado, who likes to uncover societies’ hidden essence.

In the last 40 years, the 72-years old photographer, with a major in Economics, has travelled in dangerous and extreme conditions through more than 100 countries observing deprived societies in the remote corners of the world.

Salgado’s impressive expeditions, beautifully narrated in the documentary “The Salt of the Earth” (2014) by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, resulted in majestic social photography projects such as “Other Americas” (1977-1984), “Workers” (1993), “Migrations” (2000) and “Genesis” (2004-2011). These projects document the agony and splendor of the earth, showing the greatness of its most neglected creatures.

Although he shot in color for magazines like the New York Times at the beginning of his career, Salgado was never a color photographer: “Reality is not in black and white but transforming all colors in different levels of grey allowed me to concentrate on the dignity and personalities of the people and tell their stories,” the photographer said. He still largely works in film, but has begun using digital cameras since 2008. “I don’t know how to edit on a computer. My assistant produces contact sheets for me and I continue to edit as I did during all my life.”

The exhibit displayed some of his photographs from Latin America in the seventies, and a selection of images from “Genesis,” including penguins and icebergs of the Antarctic Peninsula, buffalos and elephants in Zambia, marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands, whales off Argentina, sand dunes in Namibia and Algeria, the Nenet people of Siberia, and, of course, the spectacular photographs of a Gold Mine in Brazil (1986) and the dramatic images of the catastrophic oil pipelines burning during the first Gulf war in Kuwait (1990).

Salgado considers the Kuwait series one of the most striking bodies of work he ever did: “It was the most spectacular experience I had in my life. It was amazing to see 50 meters columns of fire. It was terrible. It was the apocalypse.”

Talking about Saudi Arabia, a country mainly known for being one of the biggest oil producers in the planet, Salgado expressed his wish to explore more the country and recalled his visit to the Masmak fort in Riyadh a few days earlier: “walking inside the fort you realize how until 50 years ago Saudi Arabia was a poor country and how the history of humanity is everywhere a history of fight. The pictures there are a lesson for everyone.”

He also emphasized how countries like Saudi Arabia represent the exception of the planet: “Just by crossing a slice of Red Sea, you get catapulted from Saudi Arabia to Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, in a world of misery and famine that is the most diffused human condition.”
“We need to listen to the words of the people on the land. If we don’t have some kind of spiritual return to our planet, I fear that we will be compromised,” he said during an interview for the exhibit’s catalogue.

Salgado discovered the light through a journey of darkness. After witnessing the silent drama of manual workers and mass migration of people driven by hunger, natural disasters and wars, he found a way of positively contributing to the evolution of the earth through the Genesis project and Instituto Terra (Earth Institute), celebrating nature in both a photographic and concrete way. 
For Genesis, Salgado traveled for eight years to places still untouched by modern civilization to photograph landscapes, animals and people that recall the period of the Genesis. 

While Instituto Terra is specialized in reviving the forests of Salgado’s former family property in Brazil transformed today into a natural reserve. The Instituto was conceived during a difficult moment in the photographer’s life.

“In Rwanda I somatized all the violence I saw and got sick. This coincided with the inheritance from my parents of a desert and sterile land that used to be filled with rainforests and rural life during my childhood. In the nineties Lelia come up with the idea of restoring the old paradise it was,” Salgado said.

To recuperate this big slice of land it was necessary to plant 2.5 million trees. Today Sebastiao and Lelia have around 2.3 million trees. They have practically recuperated their land and have transformed it into a national park: “We don’t own the land anymore. And most of the money we earn goes to Instituto Terra,” Salgado said.

“A tree is house to tens of thousands of animals. When you put 2.3 million trees together, there is a lot of life there,” Salgado said, and stressed the importance for people to realize the equal dignity of every living being on the planet.

Salgado didn’t choose to become a social photographer nor an environmental activist: “The fact that I come from an underdeveloped country where there are many social movements of people fighting for a better life gave a social character to my photography. It was a natural process. Photography became my language.”

“In the same way, I never used to be an ecological activist. It happened spontaneously,” Salgado said, demonstrating how observation, awareness and presence of mind generate a natural inclination and feeling for the community.

Today, Salgado and Lelia’s project has became a way of life and one of the biggest Brazilian projects with a nursery producing 1.2 million  trees each year.

“Instituto Terra in Brazil is our biggest and most precious achievement. Photography was the means.”

May 07, 2016