In the Beginnings: Sebastião Salgado's Genesis

4 minute read

There’s a line from Henry David Thoreau that’s an old favorite of environmentalists: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not many people have taken that idea so much to heart as the great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who spent much of the past nine years trekking to the last wild places on earth to take the pictures collected in his new photography book, Genesis (Taschen; 520 pages), a window into the primordial corners of creation.

The Genesis project grew out of two dilemmas in Salgado’s personal life. In the late 1990s, his father gave him and his wife Lélia the Brazilian cattle ranch where Salgado, now 69, spent his childhood. He remembers the place in those days as “a complete paradise, more than 50% of it covered with rain forest,” he told Time on the phone from his home in Paris. “We had incredible birds, jaguars, crocodiles.” But after decades of deforestation, the property had become an ecological disaster: “Not only my farm, the entire region. Erosion, no water—it was a dead land.”

By 1999, Salgado was also completing Migrations, a six-year photographic chronicle of the human flood tides set loose around the world by wars, famines or just people searching for work. The project took him to refugee camps and war zones and left him wrung out physically and emotionally. “I had seen so much brutality. I didn’t trust anymore in anything,” he says. “I didn’t trust in the survival of our species.”

So as a kind of dual restoration project—for himself and his Brazilian paradise lost—Salgado and his wife began reforesting his family property. There are now more than 2 million new trees there. Birds and other wildlife have returned in such numbers that the land has become a designated nature reserve. As his personal world regenerated, Salgado got an idea: For his next project, why not travel to unspoiled locales—places that double as environmental memory banks, holding recollections of earth’s primordial glories? His purpose, Salgado decided, “would not be to photograph what is destroyed but what is still pristine, to show what we must hold and protect.” He likes to quote a hopeful statistic: “45% of our planet is still what it was at the beginning.”

As part of the Genesis project, Salgado has made 32 trips since 2004, visiting the Kalahari Desert, the jungles of Indonesia and biodiversity hot spots such as the Galápagos Islands and Madagascar. He hovered in balloons over herds of water buffalo in Africa (“If you come in planes or helicopters you scatter them”). He traveled across Siberia with the nomadic Nenets, people who move their reindeer hundreds of miles each year to seasonal pasture. “I learned from them the concept of the essential,” he says. “If you give them something they can’t carry, they won’t accept it.”

Traveling to the Antarctic and nearby regions, Salgado found vast flocks of giant albatrosses off the Falkland Islands and “the paradise of the penguins” on the South Sandwich Islands. “Islands at the end of the world,” Salgado calls them. “Or as we say in Brazil, ‘where the wind goes to come back.’” And where Salgado went too and came back with glimpses of paradise in peril—but not lost, not yet.

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian documentary photographer living in Paris. He has produced several books, and his work has been exhibited extensively around the world. His latest work, Genesis, premieres at The Natural History Museum in London on April 11, on view through Sept. 8, 2013. The exhibition will have its North American premier at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from May 1 through Sept 2.

Richard Lacayo is an art critic and editor-at-large at TIME.

On South Georgia, a barren island in the far South Atlantic, a pair of southern elephant seal calves beckon before a colony of king penguins. “The male seals can grow to almost five tons,” says Salgado, “but these are just babies. This one looked at me with beautiful eyes.”Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
A colony of chinstrap penguins mills about at the foot of Mount Michael, an active volcano in the South Sandwich Islands, in the far South Atlantic, where erosion has cut the volcanic ash into eerie crevices. “These landscapes are as alive as I am,” says Salgado. “One day I was walking around rocks near a volcano that were one day old. They had just become solid."Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Salgado photographed these buffalo at Kafue National Park in Zambia from a balloon. “When you come with planes or helicopters you scatter the animals,” he says. “With a balloon you can come within two or three meters of an animal and even use a tripod, because it’s so quiet.”Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Along Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula, a southern right whale flexes its mighty tail. “We became friends with one,” says Salgado. “She came to our boat every day. You could touch her.”Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
On one of several trips to the Sahara, Salgado encountered this slashing sand dune in southern Algeria.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
In Siberia Salgado traveled with the Nenets, nomadic herders who move their reindeer every year more than 620 miles from winter pastures on the Russian mainland to summer grazing lands in the Arctic Circle. “Every five days they kill one reindeer,” says Salgado. “In order not to lose its blood they don’t cut its neck -- they strangle it. We drank the hot blood inside the animal. Then they take off the skin because they need it as cover for their huts, for clothes and to make the lassos they use to catch reindeer.” Here the herd makes the 31-mile crossing of the frozen Ob River in Siberia while a caravan of sledges follows in their wake.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Big Horn Creek in Kluane National Park and Reserve, located in a nearly inaccessible region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, near the border with Alaska.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Caimans, lizards related to alligators, gather in the Pantanal, a vast wetland in western Brazil that spills into Paraguay and Bolivia. Though an estimated 10 million live there, they are considered an endangered species because of uncontrolled hunting.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Two black-browed albatrosses nestle while overlooking the Willis Islands near South Georgia, in the far South Atlantic.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Cathedral Cave in Madagascar's Ankarana National Park and Reserve is a “tsingy”, an underground limestone cavern formed by water erosion.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Sea lions rest on shelves of compacted volcanic ash on Santiago Island, part of the Galapagos chain made famous by Charles Darwin.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
The earth's largest concentration of penguins inhabits tiny Zavodovski Island, one of the nine volcanic islands in the South Sandwich chain, in the far South Atlantic. A 1997 survey estimated that it's home to about 750,000 chinstrap penguin couples as well as a large colony of macaroni penguins. The island's active volcano is visible in the background.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
In the Namib Desert, which covers much of Namibia, in southern Africa, winds blowing from several directions produce “multicyclic” dunes like these.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
A herd of hippopotamus wade in the Okavongo Delta in Botswana. Though Salgado preferred balloons over planes, they could be risky. “In the late afternoon you get ascendant currents of air that can be dangerous,” he says. “So we would start to fly at half past five in the morning and land at half past ten.”Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images
Chinstrap penguins line up along an iceberg as it floats among the South Sandwich Islands in the far South Atlantic.Sebastião Salgado—Amazonas/Contact Press Images

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