The Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has never been the kind of artist who shrinks from big issues. During his 35-year career, he has specialized in long-term, self-assigned projects during which he spends years traveling thousands of miles to document a single theme. Workers, a seven-year project completed in 1992, focused on laborers in 26 countries. Migrations, which he started in 1993 and finished in 1999, examined the vulnerability of refugees, economic migrants, and other displaced people in some 40 nations. The critical and popular success of these collections has made Salgado something of a photojournalist rock star. His meticulously composed black-and-white photographs – often with the subject backlit, so as to sharpen shapes and heighten emotion – carry an almost unbelievable drama. Many of his images have become icons.
Now, Salgado is turning his camera to the subject of the natural world – or what’s left of it. His latest project, called Genesis, is an effort to document the pristine vestiges of the planet. He started on Genesis in 2004 and expects to have it finished by 2012. When completed, the project will tell the stories of 20 unique places that have somehow avoided the mark of human development.
Salgado has told interviewers that the name Genesis isn’t intended to convey a religious meaning. But in reviewing the body of his work, it can be easy to perceive biblical archetypes. The oil workers in Kuwait, for example, who passively endure a rain of petroleum, seem to have the patience of Job. If the scrum of workers at the Serra Pelada gold mine are a glimpse of purgatory – hell, even – then the swarm of babies at a São Paulo daycare center appear like a Babel of the future. The tender image of the tail of a right whale becomes Jonah’s “great fish.”
This is not to say that Salgado’s images are so carefully arranged, or so self-consciously edited, that they become abstractions. Rather, that the photographer has managed to take facts and, with scrupulous commitment to the integrity of reality, imbue them with the force of myth.
Throughout his career, Salgado has sought to use his photographs to inform the global consciousness. He has been an insistent witness to the injustices of social systems. With Genesis, Salgado celebrates the best of the planet’s ecosystems. Hopefully, the world will, as the story goes, see that it was good.
A Salgado retrospective is showing at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California through January 2010. His photographs can also be viewed at: www.amazonasimages.com.
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