When Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado decided to begin a project about the earth — “a kind of homage to the planet” — he first imagined he would document its destruction. “We thought we should do a denunciation; something about pollution, the destruction of the forest,” he told his audience of more than a thousand last Tuesday at the Hammer Museum. “Then, after we thought about it, we decided, No; there are a lot of pictures of this, we don’t need more. What we need instead is a story about what’s pristine — to show the people that still we have a lot of places, a lot of land that’s just like it was on the day of the beginning.”
That project in progress, Genesis, will be the eighth and final book of Salgado’s celebrated career, throughout which he has examined, in black-and-white photographs of astonishing clarity, the lives hidden away behind the news of war, displacement and famine. He has captured the faces of mine workers in India, the movements of refugees out of Ethiopia, the terror of orphans in Africa. He has also applied his rigorous formality to photographing the natural world: zebras lined up at a river as neatly as soldiers, a glacier in the throes of disintegration, a gorilla eyeing an intruder as she clings to her spawn.
Salgado, now 65, was born in Aimorés, a town in eastern Brazil known for its fertile soil and mineral-rich mountains. He and his wife, Léila Wanick, fled the country’s military dictatorship in 1969 and settled in Paris, where Salgado finished his master’s in economics, and Wanick studied architecture (as one consequence, Salgado speaks English with a mixture of French and Portuguese accents: “Total” comes out as “totau”; “necessary” is always “necessaire”). They didn’t return until the 1990s, when Salgado’s father fell ill as they were working on their fourth book, Migrations. After his father died, Salgado, the lone brother of seven sisters, discovered his family had bequeathed him the family farm.
“It was the paradise where I was born,” Salgado said, “but when we arrived, we found that what had been 60 percent rainforest is now just 0.3 percent rainforest.”
Brazil had gone from being mostly rural to mostly urban; its watersheds, like the ones in Salgado’s River Doce Valley, had been destroyed. “For us it was very dramatic to see this,” Salgado said. “But then Léila said to me, ‘Why don’t you replant the rainforest that was here before?’
“We called a friend of ours, an engineer who knew about these things. He said, ‘You have to plant 2.5 million trees.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So we started to ask any friend around the world to help us, and we started the project.” One decade later, “We have planted 1.5 million trees.”
Salgado’s relentless attention to beauty in his photographs has annoyed some critics over the years. “To aestheticize tragedy,” critic Ingrid Sichy wrote resentfully in 1991, “is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it.” If that criticism hasn’t held up — “in fact, it’s nonsense,” says curator Peter Fetterman, who has shown Salgado’s work for 20 years — it’s perhaps because the demonstrated effect of Salgado’s pictures is exactly the opposite: He has moved people to action on social and environmental causes they didn’t even know existed.
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“I have that print of the glacier in my living room,” a woman told me during a reception at Fetterman’s gallery, where Salgado mingled in the crowd wearing jeans and a khaki baseball cap. “Every time I pass it I’m reminded of what’s happening to us. That glacier is gone now.
“We are a tribe,” Salgado said of the people who had come to see him, like they would a rock star. “We are all here because we are working on the same thing.” Exquisite prints of his most famous images hung on the walls; his book, Africa, was available for purchase. Salgado, however, was more interested in talking about his farm, now a nature reserve and educational center complete with a regional nursery for 160 species of native trees.
“We are completing a sort of miracle in our region, so many things are coming back.” Even the watershed is being restored. “You see, when I take a shower,” he said, rubbing his bald head, “it takes no time at all for my hair to dry. But if you have hair, the water stays there, yes? It’s the same with a tree.” And even as he works to restore the rainforest, he continues to photograph the land not yet in need of restoration — the 44 percent of the earth humans have found too inhospitable to exploit.
“This is a very important moment in the history of our planet,” he said. “I am making a memory of it.”