- Posted By: Alan Hagman
- Posted On: 4:00 a.m. | April 15, 2013
The Brazilian photojournalist’s book of black-and-white photographs is the culmination of an eight-year international project to capture those parts of the planet untouched by modern society’s effects.
By Liesl Bradner
With Earth Day a week away, Brazilian photojournalist and social documentarian Sebastião Salgado, best known for his photos of social and environmental injustices, is releasing what he calls his “love letter to the planet.” “Genesis” (Taschen) is an epic 520-page book of spectacular black and white photographs, a culmination of an ambitious eight-year project that took him to the far reaches of the world unspoiled by the ills of modern society such as deforestation, urbanization and overpopulation.
“I wanted to photograph what is pristine in our planet. Show people how incredible and beautiful the landscape still is so we can respect and protect it,” said Salgado from Taschen’s Sunset Boulevard office one recent afternoon while in town to speak at a TED Conference. “About 46% of the planet is as it was the day of the genesis, in the beginning.”
His commemorative return to nature almost didn’t happen. In 2000 Salgado had lost his faith in humanity. He had just completed his book “Migrations,” a six-year exploration of the exodus of rural families and the plight of poor and displaced people in 35 countries. Witnessing horrific violence toward refugees in the Congo and the genocide in Rwanda left Salgado, now 69, emotionally drained. His body covered in boils and infections, he felt like he was dying.
After retreating to his boyhood farm in eastern Brazil, which had been deeply affected by deforestation and erosion, he and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, founded Instituto Terra, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring ecosystems by planting trees. It was this experience that became the origin for “Genesis.”
In 2004, starting off in the Galápagos Islands, the Paris-based former economist embarked on a 30-trip expedition to some of the most remote and inaccessible lands. Spending an average of two months in each area, Salgado immersed himself in the surroundings. Exposed to extreme temperatures and often precarious situations, he walked on icebergs, hiked 500 miles over Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains and mingled among 5-ton elephant seals, a colony of king penguins on a barren South Atlantic island and giant albatrosses off the Falkland Islands. In Argentina’s Península Valdés he befriended a majestic Southern Right whale, getting close enough to touch it without tipping his boat.
To photograph walruses in the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, he spent nearly a week in an enclosed container continuously being riled by a clever polar bear that could turn door handles.
It was while traveling in an isolated section of the Siberian Arctic in minus 22-degree weather with the nomadic Nenets that he had an epiphany. “I understood then the concept of what is essential,” he said. “They don’t have money and don’t carry more things than their reindeer can pull in their sleds. It was so extreme yet incredibly beautiful,” said Salgado, adding that in 10 years these caravans will be gone.
An exhibition of Salgado’s “Genesis” photographs is on view at the Natural History Museum in London and opens May 4 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.