For Sebastião Salgado, being an advocate for social and environmental change by earning a Ph.D. in economics and working for the World Bank was not enough.
Taking up photography in his 30s, Salgado yearned to capture the hard realities of the modern world. Salgado created striking images that helped present veridical narratives of human life on Earth. Salgado’s images presented everything from the gritty truths of human toil to the perplexing, eternal beauty of nature. In his attempt to make a positive impact, photography ultimately became the most critical aspect of Salgado’s life.
Born on a farm in 1944 in Aimorés, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Salgado describes his childhood home:
“I was born on a farm. A farm that was more than 50 percent rainforest still. A marvelous place. I lived with incredible birds, incredible animals. I swam in our small rivers with caimans. There were about 35 families on this farm and everything that we produced on this farm we consumed.”
Despite living in a place that connected him deeply with nature, Salgado left his small town to pursue secondary education. Moreover, at a time when Brazil began to organize and industrialize, Salgado became a bit radical. He joined leftist parties, became an activist, and eventually earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of São Paulo. Leaving the tumultuous political environment of the time, he left Brazil with his wife Lélia for France. Thereupon, Salgado earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Paris, and Léila would begin architectural studies. In 1971, the pair would move to London. Salgado would go on to work as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. As part of his work, Salgado made frequent trips to Africa.
It was there that he first started taking photographs, photographs that would change the course of his life.
“I discovered photography completely by chance. My wife is an architect; when we were young and living in Paris, she bought a camera to take pictures of buildings. For the first time, I looked through a lens – and photography immediately started to invade my life.”
By the early 70s, Salgado would leave his career as an economist and become a freelance photojournalist.
In the following decades, he would cover some of the world’s most notorious events. He worked for photographic agencies like Sygma, Gamma, and Magnum Photos throughout Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Consequently, Sebastião Salgado became a notable photojournalist. Using black-and-white silver gelatin prints to create an unmistakable aesthetic, Salgado covered extremely difficult episodes of human life. Salgado’s lens captured famine, the displacement of workers, mass migrations, and civil war.
In Churchgate Station, 1995, Salgado encapsulates the visuals of mass labor migration. The image is set at the terminus station of the Western Railway. This railroad line is one of most notoriously busy in India, with approximately half a million daily passengers. The pictures depict a collective labor force and its chaotic but ultimately essential characteristic as a human experience. The photograph visualizes the forceful socio-economic energy of labor in the modern world. Perhaps the most iconic photo from Salgado’s Migrations series, it depicts the growing industrialization of the world.
Captured from a high vantage point and with available light, the undulating crowds of passengers, move like waves in the sea, swashing against mass transit.
“At the end of the 1990s, I completed a long series of photo essays on the unparalleled movement of peoples across the globe. It involved recording the massive migration of peasants from rural areas to cities on several continents. It led me to follow destitute refugees fleeing armed conflicts and natural disasters, and I accompanied young men willing to risk all in the hope of finding a better life in some far-off land. I witnessed much suffering and great courage, but most of all, I saw violence and brutality, such as I had never imagined before. By the time the project was over, I had lost all faith in the future of humanity.”
Of his long career, three series have stood out among Salgado’s most influential work. Workers, (1993) Migrations, (2000) and his most recent series, Genesis (2009.)
After these events, Sebatião Salgado’s father approached him and his wife Léila. Salgado’s father asked the couple to take over the property where Sebastião had spent his childhood. The cattle ranch in Vale do Rio Doce in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, a place he vividly remembered. Consequently, after receiving the land, Salgado realized how much his childhood home had changed.
“When I was a kid, it was more than 50 percent rainforest. When we received the land, it was less than half a percent rainforest, as in all of my region. To build development, Brazilian development, we destroyed a lot of our forest.”
As a result of witnessing the condition of the land Salgado cherished, his wife Léila had an idea to recreate the forest in the area.
The Salgado’s wanted the ecosystem to return to its natural state as a subtropical forest. They founded the Instituto Terra non-profit to ensure the sustainable development of the valley where Salgado’s cattle ranch, Fazenda Bulcão, is located. Therefore, by planting over 300 different species of trees and working with engineers, the Salgados’ watched as the land slowly regenerated into its earlier lushness.
“Marveling at nature’s ability to restore itself, we grew more anxious about the fate of the planet at large. We understood the absurdity of the idea that nature and humanity can somehow be separated. We also recognized that the breakdown in our links to nature poses a genuine threat to humanity. Through the rapid urbanization of the past 100 years, we have lost touch with the wilderness, animals, and plants that represent the very essence of life on Earth. We may know how to subjugate nature, but we easily forget that we depend on it for our very survival.”
Inspired by these reflections, Sebastião Salgado embarked on a new series of photographs that would emphasize the unbreakable link between nature and the human experience.
“In Genesis, I followed a romantic dream to find and share a pristine world that all too often is beyond our eyes and reach.”
Using the same remarkable silver-gelatin print method from the previous series, he began traveling the world for Genesis. After eight years of visiting 32 locations, the series Genesis includes fascinating pictures that examined the global climate, and how there are still places where nature “reigns in silence.”
“In his past work, Sebastião Salgado worked with highly skilled and imaginative printers like Philippe Bachelier, to perfect the inherent luminosity of the gelatin silver print and adapt it to depictions of human resilience in the midst of famine and harsh manual labor.” – Mary Warner Marien
Moreover, Salgado begins to use his established aesthetic that depicted human resilience now to illustrate the eternal resilience of nature as the fundamental essence of human life.
“I have inside me the winds, the deserts, the oceans, the stars, and everything created in the universe. We were all made by the same hand, and we have the same soul.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
In Sahara, South of Djanet, Algeria, 2009, Sebastiao Salgado captures the eternal mystique and enigma of the desert. The photograph is akin to the romanticist painting of Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Salgado centers the piece around the vast expansiveness of the landscape. The individual in the foreground gazes into the landscape, reminding the viewer of nature’s capacity to open dimensions within yourself.
“At first impression, the Sahara seems lifeless. With golden sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, it suggests a hostile landscape unchanged since time immemorial. Yet this desert has had many lives. In fact, during my travels, it is one of the places where I felt closest to the distant past of wildlife and humanity. “
“So many times I’ve photographed stories that show the degradation of the planet. I had one idea to go and photograph the factories that were polluting, and to see all the deposits of garbage. But, in the end, I thought the only way to give us an incentive, to bring hope, is to show the pictures of the pristine planet – to see the innocence.”
In “Sahara,” the range of forms and the dynamic possibilities of black to white tonality, complete with soft mid-tones, make it a brilliant photograph. The picture is a meditation, becomes emblematic in Salgado’s discourse on the wonders and infinite possibilities of the natural world.
In conclusion, in the eyes of Salgado, “Sahara” is both grounding in its apparent silence and redemptive in the power and sheer expanse of nature.