We meet the documentary photographer at his exhibition at Manchester's Science and Industry museum
It’s rare that you’ll ever meet anybody who’s been to over 130 countries in their lifetime. I mean that’s way over half of the world, and then some. However, for world-renowned documentary photographer and photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado, the world and its natural wonders have been the subject of his work for almost five decades. A man, his camera, and the biodiversity of planet earth.
It's a real eye-opener, the kind that makes you feel like a tiny dot on a very big piece of paper
Salgado was born in 1944 in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and now resides in Paris with his wife Lélia. His work has been on display internationally with photobooks that cover everything from refugees and migrants to an archaeology of the industrial age and a desert on fire. Working on self-assigned projects that generate hundreds of images, Salgado’s largest work, Genesis, is conceived as “a potential path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature”. A pretty impressive tagline.
Salgado is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, an environmentalist, and is currently helping to rebuild destroyed elements of the Brazilian rainforest in the Rio Doce Valley. The photographer’s first UK-based large-scale exhibition outside of London in over 20 years is now also alive, immersive, and kicking in the Special Exhibition Gallery at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum.
Amazônia celebrates the Brazilian rainforest's indigenous people and vast landscapes with over 200 black and white images, and video interviews with indigenous tribe leaders. Curated by Lélia Wanick Salgado herself, the exhibition is one that I’ll never forget. I think I’ll remember meeting the couple in the flesh for a long time too.
Talking in-depth about their relationship with the rainforest, the creative curation process, and their current conservation efforts, I met Sebastião and Lélia Salgado amongst the huge hanging photographs of Amazônia.
A man in Manchester (for the first time)
Amazônia as an exhibition has been described as “an awe-inspiring celebration of life on Earth”, and these images and videos are also set to grace the walls of the Philharmonie in Paris, the MAXXI in Rome, and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro. Nestled in amongst some pretty big names, it's an incredible feat that our very own Science Museum is featured on the tour.
Until about a week ago, Manchester was one of the very few places Salgado hadn't visited. However, he assured me, "We are very happy to be doing a show in Manchester. We know the importance of Manchester and as soon as we got here we discovered an incredible city. It is an amazing city and it's a very interesting, very beautiful, very rich place. There's lots of old architecture, very beautiful new architecture, and I believe that the people who live here are privileged people. For us, it's a privilege to have our show here."
Up close and personal
Photographing the Amazon and its indigenous folk is no small feat. As Sebastião said: "To do a story like this, you must be very aware of the subject because it's not easy. It's very complicated to organise the trips and you have no infrastructure. We must carry everything and organise real expeditions to do this kind of photography." The images are varied, clever, and the product of a very high step count.
The pieces on show range from wide-angle landscape shots of tree-tops, rivers and rainstorms, to intimate portraits of Suruwahá tribe members. It's a real eye-opener, the kind that makes you feel like a tiny dot on a very big piece of paper.
If I'd had several hours and a cup of tea, I could’ve picked Salgado’s brains all day. A man who’s been to over 130 countries across a 49-year-long photography career surely has some fascinating stories of chance encounters and worldly spectacles. "Where's the most beautiful place you've ever been?", I asked, and waited as he mentally rifled through all of the spots he's stopped to capture over the years:
"There are so many beautiful countries and amazing places, but the two most pristine places that I've been to are Antarctica and Amazonia, because they are the two most protected places on the planet. Nature is truly real there. Thinking about Amazonia and the paradise that exists there, it's beautiful, it's pure and there are no diseases in Amazonia, it's pure nature. When you are there, all the cells in your body come back to the origin of everything and you remember that we are nature, and we are biodiversity, you feel vital." I was hoping he'd say Manchester. I'm sure that's his third choice.
A changing landscape
For Sebastião and Lélia, the Amazônia exhibition tour was designed and promoted with a clear message in mind. The fast approaching and potentially irreversible effects of climate change are now their primary concern:
"The first trip that I did to the Amazon was in the 80s. At that time, about 100% of Amazonia was still there, and today there's about 80%. We've lost 20% in those 40 years, and we have a president in Brazil who is a very predatory man and is destroying the place as well".
Talking about the work on display, "These pictures here represent the majority of the Amazon, the alive Amazon, but you have the other side that we sometimes see on the news and television with the fires, the destructions of communities, the mining and gold diggers that are destroying everything. This isn't shown in our show, we represent the pristine one in order to protect and conserve what's left".
The couple adds: "We have a conscience as Brazilians, but the destruction of Amazonia is caused by the consumption of the whole of society on this planet. When you eat the meat from pigs that were raised in England, you don't question if the grains that the pigs are eating come from Amazonia, when in fact a lot of these grains have come from soya beans produced there. We are killing Amazonia and it's important for us to bring the show here so that people in Manchester know the real place."
The curation process
Sebastião's wife Lélia has conceived, designed and edited the vast majority of her husband's photobooks, including Other Americas, An Uncertain Grace, Workers, Terra, and Africa. Having been together for almost 60 years, Lélia has accompanied him on his worldly travels and is responsible for the curation of his touring exhibitions too. A genuine power couple.
Amazonia is curated with giant hanging photographs, wall mounted prints and a combination of sights and sounds that truly feel as though you are right in the heart of the Amazon. Smaller house-like spaces are also used to represent each indigenous tribe.
Lélia explained that she intended to immerse the audience within the forest itself: "The show intends to make people see and also be beside the subject. For Amazônia, I would like the people to feel like they are inside the forest. To do this, we were able to hang the pictures up, and because we have that one on one relationship with the subjects and the images, this allows you to feel as if you are inside the forest and the houses of the people who live in the forest too".
An accompanying soundtrack by French composer Jean-Michel Jarre also plays throughout the Special Exhibition Gallery, a careful curation choice from Lélia: "I like to have the sounds of the forest alongside the images, including the animals, the storms, and the birds etc. One museum in Geneva has a big archive on the sounds of the Amazon, and Jean-Michel Jarre was very interested in working on Amazônia in particular. We made a very nice arrangement together. I think it's very accurate because we have a storm sometimes and it's very very noisy, and we also have the indigenous people talking about their lives as part of the soundtrack which is very important."
The Rio Doce Valley
In 1998, Sebastião and Lélia created InstitutioTerra, an organisation that promotes the restoration of the Rio Doce valley in Brazil via reforestation and sustainable development.
The couple explains: "We are currently planting a forest, and up to now, we've planted 2,500,000 trees in 22 years. We now have a forest, a young forest, and we have a lot of animals, birds and lots of water. We work a lot with the people around the forest and we want to continue to do more. We've worked to re-cooperate the water supply and all of this helps the environment. We must all help to rebuild a huge part of the planet that we have destroyed"
Time to go
It's rare that an exhibition of this scale and importance sticks around for a long time, but Amazônia is running at The Science and Industry Museum from now until Sunday 14 August.
As museum director Sally MacDonald says: "Amazônia is a beautiful and evocative exhibition and the Special Exhibitions Gallery is the perfect setting. Visitors can’t fail to be moved and inspired – it is a call to action for us all".
If you love a good documentary, The Salt of the Earth (2014) recounts Sebastião's and Lélia's life in beautiful, revealing detail. In Lélia's words, "It expresses a part of our life and what we care about, what we saw, and how these things will always stick with us". It's available on Amazon Prime.
Tickets for Amazônia are free and available to purchase online or over the phone at 033 0058 0058. Visitors have to reserve a time slot throughout the day and it's worth noting that the museum is open from 10am to 5pm Wednesday - Sunday.
The exhibition contains nudity and content that some visitors may find challenging.
Header image: The Science Museum Group
Read next: Julie Hesmondhalgh: 'We're finally realising that there's a rich pool of talent that exists here'
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!