GENISIS: Sabastião Salgado, National History Museum, London

by Sue Hubbard

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. —Mahatma Gandhi

Fo_salgado_genesis_tradeThe Wild contains answers to more questions than we've yet learned to ask. There was a time when the wilderness never seemed far away. Life was a battle against its encroachment. It existed on the edge of our consciousness and our safe physical world: a place of danger and a space for the imagination to roam. It was in the 18th century, with the rise of industrialism that artists and poets began to see the wilderness as an alternative space, a place of wonder and awe, where man was but a tiny element, dwarfed by nature's sublime mountains and waterfalls, its forests and snow-capped peaks. In 1798, at the age of 28, Wordsworth wrote in his great pantheistic autobiographical poem, The Prelude:

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free…

“Not until we are lost”, wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to understand ourselves”. For Freud the forest was a metaphor for the unconscious where the self could easily become lost in a welter of elemental fears. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness the jungle represented what was atavistic within the human psyche: the Id to the Ego, Caliban to Arial. For Marlow the Congo was chthonic, savage and elemental and stood in counterpoint to civilisation and his vision of the whited sepulchre of Brussels. For us post-moderns the wilderness represents a prelapsarian world, for so few of us, living in our suburbs and crowded cities have any real experience of the wild, which for many is as alien and remote as the moon.

The photographer Sabastião Salgado has a deep love and respect for the natural world and is concerned with how modernity is impacting on it with, often, devastating socio-economic and ecological implications. Born in Brazil in 1944, one of eight children, he studied economics before becoming an economist in the Finance Department of the São Paula city government. Moving to France in 1969 to study for a doctorate, he opted, instead, for a career in photography, joining the press agency Gamma. Research into the living conditions of peasants and the cultural resistance of the indigenous Indians in Latin America resulted in the book Other Americans. While Workers (1993) documented the vanishing way of life of manual laborers across the world and Migrations (2000) was a tribute to mass migration driven by hunger, natural disasters, and environmental degradation. Mythic, poignant and, seemingly timeless, his images of toiling mine workers could be Egyptians workers erecting the pyramids. An investigation into the lives of the inhabitations of the “4000 Habitations” – a large housing project in La Courneuvue, just outside Paris – continued his concern with humanitarian subjects. This was followed by Sahel, L'Homme en detresse, photographs taken in the drought ridden Sahel region of Africa whilst working with the humanitarian aid group, Médecine Sans Frontières.

During a bout of illness in the late 1990s Salgado returned to the ranch in Brazil where he grew up. To his dismay he found it much changed: the lush vegetation and rich wildlife he remembered from childhood had largely been decimated. With his wife and collaborator, Lélia Wanick Salgado, he decided to replant nearly 2m trees and watched as the birds and animals returned to the renewed landscape. Thus the idea for Genesis was born

Genesis Picture 8Eight years was spent travelling on the road, through 35 countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Alaska and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Already in his mid 60s he suffered real privation as he travelled for eight months a year. The title of the project is unashamedly biblical for Salgado's aim is to show us the unblemished face of nature and humanity; landscapes, wildlife and human communities that still to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions.

It is a heroic enterprise. The pristine ice fields of the Antarctic, with their white castellated walls glistening above a virgin sea, are contrasted with the dense lush vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest. There are colonies of penguins, which however politically incorrect it is to do so, are hard not to anthropomorphize as they sit in rows and dive into the sea. There is the tail of a vast whale lashing against surf like some great Leviathan and a close up of the five fingered claw of an armadillo that looks like a medieval chainmail gauntlet, and reminds us that we are not so far removed from our animal cousins

Human diversity and an ability to adapt to local environments can be seen throughout the project. In Ethiopia Salgado travelled to a remote region to photograph one of the world's oldest Christian communities, whose farming practices and ways of worship have remained virtually unchanged since biblical times. While in the frozen wastes of Siberia he has recorded the Nenets, an indigenous people whose extraordinary rhythmic way of life is defined by the migration of reindeer herds and has been endangered first by the ‘civilisation' programme of the Soviet government and now by climate change and threats from the oil and gas industries. With the Nenets and their 7,000 reindeer he walked for 10 to 12 hours a day for 47 days in temperatures of -35C,-45C. For a Brazilian more used to tropical climes it was extremely tough. Worried about his survival the Nenets made him traditional clothing of natural fur.

Genesis Picture 11Salgado has chosen to photograph in black and white, though his images are digital and not film. There is something nostalgic about this choice that suggests 19th travel photography and the Victorian passion for recording and documenting exotic places. Many of the sweeping landscapes, such as the glaciers of the Kluane Nation Park bordering Alaska, one of the largest non-arctic ice fields in the world, bring to mind the 19th century Hudson River School, paintings of the American sublime by artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. A symphony of tonal greys, whites and black photographs such as the Viedma Glacier in Patagonia become lyrical abstract compositions.

In a recent discussion for Newsnight Review on the BBC2 Salgado was criticised for his images of indigenous people. Some felt them to be voyeuristic, a vision of the exotic ‘other' for the consumption of the western gaze. And sometimes it is hard for the viewer to know how to approach the images of plate lipped Surma teenagers from Ethiopia, their pubescent breasts decorated with scarifications, posing provocatively and knowingly for the camera. The lives of the Zo'é people from the rainforest between the Erepecuru and Cuminapanema rivers, tributaries of the Amazon, seem untouched by the modern world. They hunt and butcher monkeys all completely naked except for their frilled, presumably feather, coronets and the decorative wooden plugs or porturu, which at puberty are punched through their chins to protrude from their bottom lips. It is hard not to gawp in fascination.

Even so the photographs are visually stunning, taking us to places that most of us will only ever dream of visiting. It's a commonplace of all religions, even the most primitive, that those seeking visions and insight should separate themselves from the herd and live for a time alone in the wilderness. Salgado has said that these photos are “a call to arms for us to preserve what we have. Of course, “he says, “it is not possible to ask people to go back to live in the forest, but we can preserve and protect this, our real heritage.” As the American writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote in The Sound of Mountain Water: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Images:

Image 8

North of the Ob River, about 100 kilometers inside the Yamal peninsula, fierce winds keep even daytime temperatures low. When the weather is particularly hostile, the Nenets and their reindeer may spend several days in the same place, doing repair work on sledges and reindeer skins to keep busy. The deeper they move into theArctic Circle, the less vegetation is to be found.

Inside the Arctic Circle. Yamal peninsula, Siberia. 2011.

Image 11

Marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).

Like other ectothermal reptiles, the marine iguana must regulate its own body temperature: as soon as the sun rises, it lies flat, warming as much body area as possible until the temperature reaches 35.5° Celsius; it then changes position to avoid overheating. The marine iguana needs a high body temperature in order to swim, to move about and to digest.

Galápagos.Ecuador. 2004.

All images are © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images

www.nham.ac.uk

· The Natural History Museum, London, UK – April 11 through September 8, 2013

· The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada – May 2 through September 2, 2013

· Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy – May 15 through September 15, 2013

· Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil – May 28 through August 25, 2013

· Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland – September 21, 2013 through January 12, 2014

· La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris, France – September 25, 2013 through January 5, 2014

· SESC Belenzinho, São Paulo, SP, Brazil – September 9 – November 2013

Sebastião Salgado. Genesis: Lélia Wanick Salgado published by Taschen
Hardcover with 17 fold-outs, 9.6 x 14.0 in., 520 pages, £ 44.99. www.taschen.com

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