One of the world’s greatest living photographers, this Brazilian artist strives to immortalize the spirit and suffering of the world and its people.
Text: ADRIANA FERREIRA SILVA
phOTO: getty images
When filmmaker Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was five years old, he used to enjoy the surprise and horror on his teachers’ faces when he told them that his father, Sebastião Salgado, spent months away from home taking pictures around the world. “I was very proud of him and what he did, but I only realized the real importance of his photographs after the Sahel project was revealed. Its publication had real repercussions in French society,” recounts the director, now 41.
Sahel was the work that established Salgado as an icon of international photography and led to a number of honors. Undertaken with the participation of the non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders, the 15-month project began in 1984 and revealed to the world the plight of refugees, victims of drought, war, and hunger in countries like Ethiopia, Mali, and Chad.
“This work helped him to find a particular purpose in his vocation,” explains Salgado’s son. “That was when ‘Tião’ decided to put his photography at the service of humanity, using his work as a means to denounce inequality.”
Sebastião Salgado’s taste for adventure began when he was still a child taking long mountain walks. Nestled among these mountains was the town of Aimorés, where his parents lived. In his biography From My Land to the Planet (2014) written in collaboration with French journalist Isabelle Franq, the artist explains that he learned to travel by exploring the paths on the way to his older sisters’ house.
In his memoirs, Salgado recalls walking by himself for distances equivalent to those separating Paris from Moscow or Lisbon and making journeys of up to 45 days, crossing through plantations, forests, and rivers, in order to bring his father’s animals to the slaughterhouse, which was hundreds of miles from the family home.
Salgado’s rural journeys continued until the age of 15, when he moved to Vitória, capital of the neighboring Espírito Santo Province. Here, he met Lélia Deluiz Wanick, his wife to this day.
“When it occurred to me to write the biography, I suggested to the publishers that it should be a book about the Salgados,” says Franq.
“Even though he’s the renowned photographer, they function as a team. Lélia is the one who makes everything possible. Without her, the projects wouldn’t exist,” she says.
Franq discovered this synergy when she visited the couple’s apartment in Paris, on the bank of the Canal Saint-Martin. Here, the family organizes Christmas parties and the traditional birthday celebration of their youngest son, Rodrigo, 36, who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with them.
The Salgados left Brazil in 1969, fleeing the political chaos of the time. In his biography, the photographer recounts how they boarded the boat to leave the country, knowing that if they were found, they would be taken to jail.
In Paris, the young couple continued their studies: she got a degree in architecture, while he tackled economics. In 1971, they moved to London, where Salgado took a job with the International Coffee Organization. His work took the nascent photographer on his first trips to Africa, a continent he would revisit many times. A Leica camera was always packed in his luggage. Salgado writes in his biography about the trips to Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Kenya, and Uganda and the realization that the photos he was taking made him happier than the reports he had to write up after returning to London.
In 1973, at the encouragement of his wife, the young economist abandoned “the good life” in London to return to Paris where he began a career as an independent photographer. This interest, Salgado explains, is a extension of his political ideals and origins.
phOTO: ©Sebastiao Salgado / Amazonas images
Before creating his company, Amazonas Image, Salgado worked for a number of agencies. He captured some historic moments along the way, such as the attempt on U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981.
Salgado’s talent as a photojournalist transformed his projects into in-depth investigations that would last months or even years. This was how he created Latinoamérica (1977-1994), which dealt with professions where manual labor was being replaced by machines, and Éxodos (1993-1999), in which he portraits the hardships of migrant workers.
In 1998, Salgado founded the Instituto Terra, with the mission of restoring the devastated forest on the land where his parents had lived. Today, two million trees cover the once-ravaged, 17,000-acre expanse.
This newfound relationship with nature likewise inspired his most recent project, Génesis. Between 2004 and 2012, Salgado documented unspoiled regions around the globe in search of the origins of the human species. The career of the celebrated photographer has been portrayed in The Salt of the Earth (2014) by German filmmaker Wim Wenders and Salgado’s own son Juliano. Honored with a Cesar Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (both in 2015), the film gives audiences an intimate perspective on the motivations that inspired this man to photograph the spirit of a planet and its human inhabitants, immortalizing their images in the process. in