While we were in London for the Charles Lloyd concert, I went along to the Natural History Museum to see the exhibition of new photographs by the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.
In his previous social projects (such as Workers, Migrations and Sahel) he has focussed on humanity, documenting destitution, poverty, war and repression around the globe – the many ways in which hundreds of millions are at the mercy of economic and political forces beyond their control. This work has also observed the displacement and alienation of communities from their natural environments and traditional ways of life as industrialisation has spread around the globe, but with this exhibition of his latest project Genesis, Salgado focusses on the natural world for the first time, presenting nature and humanity unblemished in a series of photographs of landscapes and animals as well as human communities that continue to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures:
My wish was not to photograph any more just one animal that I had photographed all my life: us. I wished to photograph the other animals, to photograph the landscapes, to photograph us, but us from the beginning, the time we lived in equilibrium with nature.
For a really good overview of Salgado’s career and an insight into what motives drive his work, there’s no better source than this TED lecture which Salgado gave in February 2013:
Genesis was an 8-year project that involved travelling to remote, pristine regions on every continent. Salgado lived in intimidating and extreme climates, for example travelling with the Nenets of northern Siberia for 40 days in the most extreme weather during the winter when temperatures fall to -40°C. Salgado explains:
Many of us live in cities, cut off completely from the planet. My wish was to experience living with people with real links to nature. I spent months with rainforest tribes. I was becoming part of them, coming back to my origins. … It made me think we are destroying our planet to accumulate things for nothing. To survive and to survive well, to be happy, we don’t need all this.
The Genesis exhibition, then, is the culmination of eight years’ hard travelling by Salgado to extreme and remote environments during which he amassed a collection of stark but sublime black-and-white images that capture landscapes of grandeur and beauty and which document the lives of indigenous communities who live in isolated regions. It’s a large exhibition – there are over 250 prints on display, a great many of them images of breathtaking beauty and photographic perfection. In their clarity and depth, Salgado’s landscapes rival those of Anselm Adams, another photographer actively engaged through his work in promoting environmental awareness and protection.
Through these images, Salgado wants to take us back to the beginning, to a world that has not yet been ruined by mankind. He wants us to see the animals, plants and indigenous tribes that represent what he regards as pristine nature. For Salgado, the exhibition is intended to evoke a sense of the planet’s resilience and impress upon the viewer that there is still hope for its future. Speaking of Genesis he says:
This has been one of my longest photographic adventures: eight years researching, exploring and celebrating nature’s unspoiled legacy… [and documenting] the animals and peoples that have so far escaped the imprint of modern society. It is a pictorial depiction of the lands and lives of a still pristine planet. I feel Genesis also speaks urgently to our own age by portraying the breathtaking beauty of a lost world that somehow survives. It proclaims: this is what is in peril, this is what we must save.
There are truly stunning images here: elephant seal calves on South Georgia; the knife-edge curve of a Saharan sand dune; baobab trees on a Madagascan island that appears to float; Nenet nomadic herders moving their reindeer to summer grazing lands, traced like callligraphy against the Arctic snow. In the Observer, Laura Cumming wrote:
Salgado’s habitual monochrome runs all the way from coal black to silver and burning white, with a thousand tones of grey in between. The lighting is characteristically spectacular, with plenty of backlighting and operatic contrasts. And the further one goes through the show, the more significant the decision to photograph the world in black and white becomes. Nothing can have absolute or accidental priority in monochrome, nothing can leap out simply by virtue of its colour. Black and white puts everything on equal footing, on the same planet.
I felt a little uncertain about some of the ways in which indigenous peoples were portrayed. Salgado seems to relish portraying examples of personal ornamentation, such as lip plates, or scars raised by rubbing ash into slashed skin. Such images come uncomfortably close to the kind of ‘noble savage’ representations that you might find decades ago in National Geographic magazine. And, like Laura Cumming, I was disturbed by the framing of the image of the girl from the upper Xingu being tattooed:
A wall text explains that he wants us to contemplate ‘a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature’. My sense is that this simple ambition will be thwarted by pictures of tribeswomen who’ve had bones forced through their lips and enlarged, year by year, until the protrusion resembles a pharaoh’s beard; of scarified Ethiopians, their wounds created by hooks into which ash has been rubbed to create an infection and “promote scar growth”, as the caption blandly puts it. Or the jarring photograph of an Upper Xingu girl posing for a tattoo, in which Salgado focuses his attentions on the body first and the ritual second (it is partially off-stage), emphatically turning the naked girl into a nude.
But such images form only a small percentage of those on show here. As for the landscapes, or the many wonderful images of animals, they approach perfection – stunning compositions with remarkable texture and tone. These images really do justice to the objectives of the genesis project, as stated by Lelia Salgado, the curator, in an exhibition panel:
Genesis is a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being. It is a journey to the landscapes, seascapes, animals and peoples that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world. And it is testimony that our planet still harbours vast and remote regions where nature reigns in silent and pristine majesty. Such wonders are to be found in polar circles and tropical rainforests, in wide savannahs and scorching deserts, on glacier-covered mountains and solitary islands. Some regions are too cold or arid for all but the hardiest forms of life, others are home to animals and ancient tribes whose survival depends on their isolation. Together they form a stunning mosaic of nature in all its unspoiled grandeur. Through these photographs, Genesis aspires to show and to share this beauty. It is a visual tribute to a fragile planet that we all have a duty to protect.
Like Anselm Adams, Salgado has done more than photograph the wild. For the last 15 years, he and his wife Leila have worked on the reforestation of a small part of the Brazilian rainforest that had been cleared for farming and logging. They have planted some two million trees of more than 300 different species that once flourished there. As a result, once arid and infertile hillsides have been transformed into lush vegetation. The rebirth of this tropical microclimate has in turn attracted birds and animals not seen in the area for decades. The couple have also set up a non-profit organisation, Instituto Terra, dedicated to reforestation, conservation and environmental education. In another exhibition panel the couple state:
As well as displaying the beauty of nature, Genesis is also a call to arms. We cannot continue polluting our soil, water and air. We must act now to preserve unspoiled land and seascapes and protect the natural sanctuaries of ancient peoples and animals. And we can go further: we can try to reverse the damage we have done. Our modest contribution has been to reforest a property in southeastern Brazil.
Reforestation is just one way we can turn back the clock. But trees also play a special role in neutralising the carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming and climate change. Governments can act to control these emissions, but only trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. With every tree that is planted, we can breathe a little more easily about the future of our planet.
Leaving the exhibition, I walked through the magnificent galleries of the Natural History Museum, resonating with the chatter and laughter of parties of schoolchildren. I passed a cabinet containing a stuffed dodo, a species extinct less than a century after its first encounter with human beings, a symbol of the escalating impact of humans on other species and on the world around them since the 16th century. Further along, displayed splayed across a corridor wall, was the fossil of a 20-foot Pliosaur, a lizard from the Early Jurassic discovered near Whitby in 1848: reminder, perhaps, that humans have dwelt on this planet for only a tiny fraction of the time that it has been inhabited by living creatures.
- Review by Laura Cumming: Observer
- Genesis: slideshow of images from the exhibition at Time magazine (can be viewed full-screen)
- Sebastião Salgado in Siberia: Guardian
- Sebastião Salgado: A gallery of spectacular photographs (TED)
- Amazonas images: website of the press agency created by Lelia and Sebastião Salgado
- Sebastião Salgado: The silent drama of photography (TED video of lecture by Salgado, filmed in Feb 2013)