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Up Close With Sebastiao Salgado, Brazil's Legendary Photographer-Activist

03/17/2013 - 23h36



Sebastião Salgado's blue eyes have seen a bit of everything in this world - and this might not even be an exaggeration.

For the past eight years in particular, the 69-year-old Brazilian photographer has traveled to more than 30 isolated regions of the world, collecting images of dozens of remote tribes, endangered animals and unusual landscapes.

The Genesis project is a singular photographic journey that began in 2004 and ended last year, at a cost of one million euros a year. The result will be shown in magazines, books, a documentary by Wim Wenders and a series of exhibitions around the world, each displaying some 250 black-and-white photos.

The first exhibition will open in London on April 11, with former Brazilian President Lula - Salgado's longtime friend - as special guest.

"We want to create a little movement around these photos to provoke a debate on what we need to preserve," he says. Salgado defends environmental causes through his organization, Instituto Terra. 
Even after traveling to so many exotic places, Salgado, now living in Paris, still take vacations in Brazil. Here are excerpts from a conversation Salgado had with Folha, with new details about his travels, photographic techniques and new environmental projects.

Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Image
Elephant running in Zambia
Elephant running in Zambia


I visited the Nenets, in the Yamal peninsula, in northern Siberia, Russia. They are a nomadic tribe who raise reindeer in extreme Arctic conditions. When I went there it was spring and weather ranged between -35ºC and -45ºC. I didn't wash myself for 45 days. They don't take baths because there is no water. The only way to get water is to break off a piece of ice and warm it in a pot. You pee outdoors - pull down your pants in this cold and your testicles shrink to the size of cashew nuts [he laughs]. You get used to it.


My clothes were only adapted for about three to four hours outside, but we spent 12 hours outdoors. They dismantled their homes and had nowhere to stay. On the second day, I was dying of cold. Then they made me a coat and I wasn't cold anymore.


I used a Canon, an EOS1 Mark III, a very powerful machine. The problem was the batteries. In the Siberian temperatures, they quickly lost power. On average, I take 2,500 shots per battery, but this time I could only take 300-400 photos before the battery stopped working. I would put it inside my clothes, my assistant would give me another one, I would take 300 more pictures and, when that battery ran out energy, I would take out the other one and it would work again.


I started Genesis with film and changed to digital. The airport X-Ray scanners degrade the quality of film, and so I decided to change to digital and was quite surprised. Quality was better than the one I had with negatives in medium format. I turned off the screen on the back of the camera, and used my camera as I have always done. When I came back to Paris, I printed contact sheets and edited the photos using a magnifying glass, because I don't know how to do it in the computer.


In northern Ethiopia, we walked 800 kilometers through the mountains. I organized an expedition with 18 donkeys. There was an Ethiopian marathon runner that carried my most fragile equipment. I had a satellite phone and, in case of an accident, we had Air Force helicopters on standby. Nothing bad happened. In eight years, I just had small accidents, malaria and various diseases.


I met tribes that are still living in the Stone Ages, with working tools such as stone hammers. There were clans of about 10 people living in treetops. They had already seen white people before. They looked towards the direction I had come from and the chief asked me whether I was part of the while people clan that usually came from that direction. Because, for them, the world is all made of clans.

Sebastião Salgado
Women of Zo'e tribe, in Amazonas, Brazil
Women of Zo'e tribe, in Amazonas, Brazil


I met the Zo'e tribe, in Brazil, who were first discovered 15 years ago and live in a state of total purity. You see the guy working with an arrow. He warms it, put some weight on it, a straight feather if he wants a quicker arrow, a rounder one to have it slower. It is the same science as for rockets. And he's got the same problem as in Cape Canaveral, to recover his rockets. If his ballistic calculations are wrong, he loses his arrow. He takes only 10 arrows with him when he goes hunting, no more than that.


My son Juliano traveled with me in five of these trips, and also in Brazil and Siberia. He is now editing the documentary, which is called Shade and Light, in Berlin with Wim Wenders.


Photography is my life. When I am taking photos, I am in a deep trance. When I have my camera and am travelling with the Nenets, it's my life, morning to night. I have taken incredible photos, but my life is also the environment and Instituto Terra.


We invented a technology for recovering water sources, we offered it to Brazilian President Dilma and she adopted it. We want to recover all the sources along Doce River, the largest river in southwest Brazil. It is 900 kilometers, bigger than the whole Portugal. We can do it in 35 years. We will save a river and plant over 100 million trees. This will be the pilot of a project than can be used in all Brazilian rivers.

Translated by WORLDCRUNCH

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