Sebastião Salgado, between light and shadow

“In Greek, ‘fos’ means light, and ‘graphee’ means writing, drawing…”

Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado was born in 8th February 1944 in Aimoré, Minas Gerais, Brazil. After discovering his real vocation, the graduate and postgraduate in Economy became one of the great talents of photojournalism worldwide. He received many prizes and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The United States) and Fine Arts (France).

The documentary “The Salt of the Earth” (2014), directed by his son Juliano Salgado and photographer Winder Wenders, won an award at Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Awards as the Best Documentary Feature in 2015.

“The Salt of the Earth” portrays the story that Sebastião draw throughout his life, using light and shadow. It reports what and how he saw in his journeys, about the beauty and the barbarity of the world.

Starting his voyage in a gold mine in Serra Pelada, in Brazil, Sebastião sees himself back in the construction of humanity. More than 50 thousand people inside that hole made him compare with the Egyptian Pyramid’s building. Men and women resembling slaves, but slaves of the ambition of becoming rich. Many were workers and graduated but counted with independence and liberty produced by their luck and hope. 

“One thing I noticed about Sebastião Salgado, that he truly cared about people. And this is valuable to me. After all, people are the salt of the Earth.”

Winder Wenders in “The Salt of the Earth”

His father requested him to study Economy, as he had a farm in Aimorés, Minas Gerais, in the border with Espírito Santo. It was a farm “under an immense sky, between Atlantic forest and the river, in a navigational period.”

Sebastião and his seven sisters were born in this village when trains departed from Minas Gerais with iron ores for the rest of the world.

When he was 15 years old, Sebastião moved to Vitória, in Espírito Santo. It was when he met a 17-years-old student of music, Lélia. They got married and moved to France after 1960, a dictatorship period in Brazil. 

Sebastião’s purpose was to follow his path in the Economy area and work for World Bank. He frequently travelled to Africa for developments’ projects, and it was in one of these journeys, he felt the pleasure of photographing. He then abandons his career as an Economist to become a photographer. His wife, always supportive, moved to Paris, where they invested all their money in photographic equipment. 

When photographing an indigenous’ group in the Andes, south of Ecuador, the “Saraguros,” Sebastião states that time seemed slow and different. Some of the indigenous saw his camera as a machine recording their voices and stories, as Sebastião says: “The strength of a portrait is when in a fraction of a second, we comprehend about the subject’s life.”

For having lived far from his father for a long period, his son urged to meet Sebastião artistic and adventurous’ life. So, in one of the journeys, they went together and photographed walrus and connect the scene with literature, comparing walrus’ tusks with Dante’s hell. 

When Sebastião returned to Brazil, after many years, his parents had grown old. Still, his vocation was always urgent in his life, so he borrowed a car from his sister and headed to his dream journey around Northeast Brazil. But, unfortunately, the northeast had a high number of child mortality, and he captured many shocking and sad stories through his photographs. Sebastião states that this part of the world is where ‘death and life are very close to each other.’

In 1984, he joined Doctors Without Borders of France and went to Africa to spend two years there reporting famine and human agonies in the biggest refugee camp of the world, which is in the project “Sahel: The End of the Road” (1984-1986). Sebastião says that death in that place was as normal as everyday life.

“Each person who dies is a piece of the world that dies.”

Sebastião Salgado in “The Salt of the Earth”

Sebastião pictures were getting noticed and opened discussions in public opinion. Lélia organised his exhibitions and many graphic projects, researching the themes along with destinations. 

The third book was a homage to men and women that built our world. One of those trips was to record the wells set on fire by Saddam Hussein after the end of the First Gulf War in 1991. Unfortunately, Sebastião developed a hearing problem due to the explosions.

His following project was “Exodus” (1993-1999), in which he registered the displacement of populations. He photographed refugees in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Palestine, Iraq, and Latin America.

Sad adventures that sickened Sebastião’s soul. He witnessed the extremes of human survival and existence in the latest places he visited, which made him lose hope in humanity.

His parents felt ill, so he returned to his father farm, which was a transformed place. There were no birds left in that place ‘between the Atlantic forest and the river, and nature had also lost hope in life. But Lélia suggested that they replant, and in ten years of work and wait, they restored the ecosystem destroyed by drought. They planted more than two million trees turning Sebastião’s hometown into the cure of his hopelessness. 

The calling of Sebastião vocation grew alongside the trees; however, the following works ought to have new themes.

Sebastião wanted to pay homage to the planet and discovered that almost half of the Earth remained the same since Genesis’ day. He then created the project “Genesis” (2001-2013).

“During eight years, I dedicated my time to see, until I comprehend the most important: I am nature, even turtles, a tree or a stone.”

Sebastião Salgado in “The Salt of the Earth”

Sebastião captured the natural and cultural beauty of places and people who had kept their most ancient traditions. He discovered that the indigenous tribe cited in the Jesuit’s letters in the XVI century was in the same place, intact.

With their lips pierced by a piece of tube, the naked indigenous did not care about his photographic camera but Sebastião’s knife. Thus, one of them asked him to give the knife, but National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) made Sebastião promise not to give them, to protect their indigenous’ pureness. 

The land of Salgado’s family is now called “Instituto Terra”, a national park opened to everyone. Sebastião lives in France with Lélia and the two sons Juliano and Rodrigo, who has Downs Syndrome; and together with his wife, he opened a press agency named “Amazonia Images” to promote his works.

His exhibition “Amazonia” will be streamed for the first time to the Brazilian public on September 14. Coordinated by the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (CNJ) in Brazil, the exhibition as a videoconference will show 200 photographic panels over the Amazonic region.

To participate, access this link.

Short video of Sebastião Salgado’s book Genesis