Beauty and crisis: the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado
Are you planning a trip to the Antarctic any time soon? A sojourn in the jungles of Papua New Guinea? A ramble through the isolated northern Amazon?
If not, set aside a couple of hours for the Royal Ontario Museum’s journey to the ends of the Earth through the lens of Brazilian uber-photog Sebastiao Salgado.
Salgado, 69, began his career as an economist, but abandoned the ivory tower for the grassroots, trekking with his camera kit to meet the people who are on the sharp end of economic policy – the forgotten, the desperately poor, the displaced.
“I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me,” he says. “the picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The ROM exhibition, Genesis, is a new chapter for Salgado. Instead of chronicling hell on Earth, he spent eight years recording his view of an earthly paradise for posterity: his “love letter to the planet.”
It was a painful transition. His decades of capturing human misery had left him depressed and exhausted, ready to shelve his cameras. And returning to southeast Brazil in the 1990s he was shocked to see that not only people, but land was in crisis – the lush landscape he remembered withered and dying from unsustainable farming.
He and his wife and collaborator, Lelia Wanick Salgado, created Instituto Terra, a non-profit group that replanted nearly 2 million trees, bringing it back to vibrant life. The result led to project Genesis.
It was a gruelling but rewarding eight-year trek through the pristine beauty of remote places, both inhabited and free from human footprints.
In Russia’s unforgiving Arctic Yamal-Nenets Salgado walked 47 days with reindeer herders, telling the Guardian – with some understatement – “for a Brazilian in temperatures of -35C spending 10 or 12 hours outside wasn’t easy.”
His stark, multi-dimensional black and white photos are almost sculptural in quality. The viewer is drawn into them hypnotically. Missing are the unseen human forces that are destroying the territory they depict: pollution, globalization, overpopulation, climate change.
“I want people to understand that this is the only world we have,” Salgado told CBC. “I believe…we’ve arrived at the break-even point. From here we cannot cross. We’ve already destroyed too much.”
See this while you can.
FURTHER READING AND VIEWING:To the ends of the earth (audio); The making of Genesis
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to South Asia and the Middle East, winning national and international awards.