Ambarin Afsar leafs through Sebastião Salgado’s love letter to the planet and comes away amazed at the conviction and strength of his love.
When I was a child, I’d spend all my time watching National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet on TV. These were less incriminating than cartoon shows, especially when I was supposed to be studying for my final exams. In the bargain, I’d spend my afternoons immersed in the windblown white vistas of Antarctica, the sultry swamps of Louisiana, or the deep rainforests of South America, depending on the channel’s programming. It was here that my love for nature and all its creatures took root.
When I opened Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis, I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming wave of nostalgia and an intense love for the world we inhabit, which the book evoked in me.
32 Destinations and a Decade on the Road
Salgado spent nearly a decade on what is undoubtedly one of the most monumental projects of his life—Genesis. He travelled far and wide, in search of the untouched regions of the planet, places that have remained unchanged for thousands of years and tribes that have held on to their ancestral way of life for centuries. In an interview, Benedikt Taschen asked Salgado what it was like spending practically 8 months a year on an average on the road, and in some cases such as Ethiopia, where there were no roads, miles and miles walking. Salgado corrected him saying, “You say there were no roads. There were roads, only made by human feet for 3000, 5000 years. Walking in these places gave me immense energy from the past.”
Almost Quitting Photography
Much, much before the seeds for Genesis were sown, Salgado was working on Migrations in Rwanda. It was here that he witnessed death in hundreds and thousands on a daily basis. He was so terribly affected by the brutality and violence around him that he started falling very ill. “I lost my faith in our species. I didn’t believe that it was possible for us to live any longer, and I started to be attacked by my own staphylococcus. I started to have infections everywhere.” He soon saw a doctor in Paris who told him, “Sebastião, you must stop. You’re heading directly towards death.”
The Momentous Event that Led to Genesis
He decided to stop. He was really upset with photography and with the world and decided to return to the place that he was born—Brazil. His parents bequeathed him and his wife Léila, the farm that he grew up on. But when he reached there, he was stunned. The land that was filled with streams, ponds, trees, brooks and animals by the hundreds, now lay practically barren. “The land was as dead as I was. In the name of development, we had ruined everything around us. This is when Léila had a crazy idea, she said, ‘Why don’t you put back the rainforest that was here before? You say that you were born in paradise. Let’s build the paradise again.’”
Together, they planted about 2.5 million trees of about 200 different species in order to rebuild the ecosystem. The farm has now become a private national park and Sebastião and Leila Salgado have created an instituion called Instituto Terra to look after it.
“We gave the land back to nature, and life started to come back in an incredible way, along with my desire for photography. This time, my wish was not to photograph the one animal I had photographed all my life—us. I wished to photograph other animals, landscapes… I wanted to photograph us, but us from the beginning, the time we lived in equilibrium with nature.”
The places that Salgado visited are not entirely unfamiliar to me, but the manner in which he combines textures with lifeforms, the manner in which he sees microcosms and macrocosms, makes one aware of a higher presence. Each image is a living, breathing organism on its own, and combined, Genesis is an experience to be slowly savoured, a journey that takes us to the heart of our planet and beyond. It shows us our place in the scheme of things, and it is a position of power—the ability to make change, and to preserve what is left of us.
Images courtesy: Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Wildlife, Ambarin Afsar, Nature, portraits, black and white, Landscapes, beauty, Magnum, sebastio salgado, genesis, migrations, planet, conservation, tribes, grace, Great Masters