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Sebastião Salgado and The Salt of The Earth by Roxana Farca

I know exactly when I first heard the name of Sebastião Salgado. It was the 5th of December 2014, the first day of a photography class I was invited to attend. I realised then that photography would completely change my view of the world. Before that day, photography was something that I had to do when travelling and only when I was not accompanied by my husband. If Alex was there with the camera, I was completely freed from the task and enjoyed observing the world through my eyes only. It seemed to be enough for me, I thought it was enough. After that winter day in 2014, photography became my passion. First, it was the teacher¹ who knew how to share his inspiration and knowledge. Then it was Salgado. My teacher quoted Salgado at our first meeting. I don’t remember the exact words, but the message was this: a person entering a photography exhibition should never be the same as the person exiting it.

I came home from class and looked for this photographer online. A couple of minutes later, I felt ashamed I had no idea who this great man was until then. I quickly found out he was not only a great photographer, but a great character and hero as well, the kind of person who tries to save the world and goes as far as he can in order to accomplish this. I was still a photography student when the documentary about Salgado’s life and work was launched in cinemas. I watched it and I became a different person than the person entering the movie theatre, just as Salgado had said.

The documentary is called “The Salt of The Earth”. I now have it at home, on DVD. It is directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s oldest son, and by Wim Wenders. Salgado and his wife, Lélia Wanick, star in the movie. As I have viewed it three times already, I thought it would be a pity not to write a few lines about this mind-boggling movie and life.

Sebastião Salgado was and still is a restless traveller and activist. He is the father who was almost never home for his sons; he is the photographer who had a higher mission, to show the lowest and the highest condition of the human being. He was so deeply involved in his work, so empathetic with so many people suffering in the world, that he was close to losing his own health and mind.

Sebastião Salgado didn’t need a teacher or a visual art class, as most of us do. After completing his master degree in economics, in Sao Paolo, he had to leave his country, Brazil, in order to save himself and his wife from military dictatorship. In Paris, Lélia, the wonderful woman who supported and inspired him throughout his life, had bought a camera for her architectural studies. They had moved to London and he would often travel to Africa, on business. “He would always take Lélia’s camera with him and come back with lots of pictures”². One day, he realised that photography was a lot more challenging than his economic reports and they both made the decision that Sebastião would take the plunge: abandon a promising and well paid job, invest everything in good equipment and start from scratch. Apart from being a mother and having a job, Lélia was always involved in Salgado’s projects, working with him on concepts, presenting his photographs to magazines, agencies and so on.

Sebastião Salgado needed seven years to complete OTRAS AMERICAS, a project dedicated to South America, from 1977 to 1984. Four years were required for the North of BRAZIL only. SAHEL, THE END OF THE ROAD, took two years to finish. There, he spent a lot of time working with Doctors Without Borders, reporting on famine and his life in refugee camps, the largest anyone had ever seen. He wanted to show that “a large part of humanity was suffering great distress due to a problem of sharing and not just a natural disaster”². For WORKERS (1986-1991), he travelled to over thirty countries, wanting to “pay homage to all the men and women who built the world around us”². Another project, EXODUS (1983-1999), created a worldwide awareness for the fate of all refugees, the displacement of entire populations due to wars, a burning subject at that time. The fate of refugees is a sensitive subject for our present time, actually. However, Salgado is not here to document, it seems he had had enough.

On his last trip, during the Rwanda genocide, Salgado confessed: “that was my last trip, that disastrous time in Rwanda. When I left, I no longer believed in anything, in any salvation for the human species. You couldn’t survive such a thing. We didn’t deserve to live. No one deserved to live.” Salgado was sick at that time. In February 2013, for a TED talk, he confessed that it was not an actual illness: “I started to have infection everywhere. When I made love with my wife, I had no sperm that came out of me; I had blood. I went to see a friend’s doctor in Paris, told him that I was completely sick. He made a long examination, and told me: Sebastiao, you are not sick, your prostate is perfect. What happened is, you saw so many deaths that you are dying. You must stop. And I took a decision to stop.”

Sebastião Salgado could not have done what he had done throughout his life had he been weak or easily broken down. He certainly had a good level of hope and a healthy relationship with nature. He managed to heal himself but, as he had never been egocentric, he did it by saving the woods and lands of his childhood, in Mina Gerais, Brazil. His parents’ farm had become a wasteland in the last years. The forests, the birds, the alligators he remembered from his childhood were all gone. It was Lélia’s crazy idea to replant the forest that has been there before. And they succeeded, in only ten years. The park is now the home of Instituto Terra. “More than a thousand water sources are flowing again on the grounds of the Instituto Terra. Two and a half million trees have already been planted. The wildlife has returned, even the jaguars. The land is no longer privately owned by the Salgados, it is a National Park now that belongs to everybody. It has become a model for abused lands anywhere else to be turned back into forests”².

After healing himself and his homeland and proving the world that there was still a chance to save our planet, Sebastião engaged in a different photographic project. In nine years (2004-2013), Sebastião Salgado created GENESIS, his most recent love letter to the planet. “My wish was not to photograph anymore just one animal that I had photographed all my life: us. I wished to photograph the other animals, to photograph the landscapes, to photograph us, but us from the beginning, the time we lived in equilibrium with nature” said Salgado in his presentation of this project on TED.

“I believe that the average person can help a lot, not by giving material goods but by participating, by being part of the discussion, by being truly concerned”³ claimed the photographer.

And he did that, and much more than that.

Watch the movie, look for the photos and, why not, do something yourself for the fate of the world.


¹ Răzvan Buluş, RGB Photography

² The Salt of the Earth (2014), the movie.

³ Photography. The Definitive Visual History. By Tom Ang.

For TED Talk mentioned in the text, click here.

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