The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: ‘Anthropology, geopolitics, society’

‘Anthropology, geopolitics, society’

That’s because Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado is the subject; standing attentively and utterly still in front of his pictures while press photographers, cameramen, and other invited media focus their collective lenses on his face.

Famous photographers are synonymous with certain iconic pictures. For Salgado, whose career covers 39 of his 68 years, it is the images he took in 1986 at the Serra Pelada gold mines in Brazil. The pictures, of 50,000 miners digging, carrying soil, and climbing up cliff faces on home-made ladders of wood and rope with sacks on their backs, have an astonishingly powerful and almost medieval quality. The scale is so immense, the number of workers so staggering, and the mud so relentless, that at first glance, they look like pictures of war. They are unforgettable photographs that both deeply trouble and compel the viewer.

Big projects are Salgado’s trademark and they frequently take years to complete. They have included Workers, which focused on acts of manual labour around the world, and Migrations, for which he visited 43 countries to document people who had left the countryside for other lives in cities.

Salgado is in Dublin to promote the exhibition Amazon, which also features work by fellow photographer Per-Anders Pettersson. The photographs in Amazon are part of his most ambitious project yet, Genesis, which he has been working on since 2004 and is due to complete this year. During this time, his aim was to photograph places in the world that were as untouched and pristine as he could find. Among the places he visited were the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Antarctica, Siberia, and an area of the Amazonian rainforest in his native Brazil. It’s the pictures from the Brazilian rainforest, many of them depicting members of the Kuikuro and Zo’e tribes, that are currently showing in Dublin.

He switched to digital three and a half years ago, and the one technical challenge he now has is charging batteries in areas with no electricity, such as the Amazon region where he shot in Brazil. So he takes along solar panels on assignment. “I can even charge my razors now,” he laughs, patting the top of his closely shaved head.

Like all of Salgado’s work, these striking pictures of the day-to-day tribal life of Amazonian Indians, their rituals, and rainforest home, are in black and white. Although he now works with digital cameras, he still chooses to shoot in black and white.

“Colour is distracting,” he explains simply, using as an example a person wearing a vividly-coloured item of clothing. “It’s much more important that instead of looking at [it], that I look instead at the eyes and face.”

What he looks for instead is form and shape; his pictures are perfect examples of composition. He uses light as a sculptor uses a chisel; carving out the subjects in his pictures with unerring mastery.

The purpose of his Amazon pictures is to focus on a region and its tribal people under threat from a staggering scale of ongoing deforestation. Perhaps the most powerful and strangest image of the exhibition is a portrait of a young woman from the Kuikuro tribe sitting in a dimly-lit space, her face completely obscured by her hair. The caption reads: “After one year spent in seclusion in the family dark hut, learning all that will make her a woman, this Kuikuro young girl is getting used again to light. The next day, during the Kaurup ceremony, she will be showed in the open to all, officially ready to find a husband.”

SALGADO TRAINED as an economist, and started off by working for the World Bank. He moved between Paris and London in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his wife, Lelia Wanick Salgado, and his work for the organisation frequently took him to Africa, where he first started taking photographs.

By 1973, he had decided he wanted to be a photographer, and gave up his life as an economist. Did this background influence his work as a photographer who has consistently focused on themes of labour, social justice, and the ways people make a living? Salgado nods.

“As a photographer, you must have some tools if you want to do an analysis. In my personal case, I learned about political economy, which is a macro economy. That gave me a lot of tools. For me as a photographer, it is necessary to know something about anthropology, geopolitics, society.”

His wife’s name, Lelia Wanick Salgado, may not be as well-known as that of the late Jeanne-Claude, who was married to the artist Christo until her death in 2009, and who collaborated with him to create famous, ephemeral art such as wrapping the Pont Neuf, the Reichstag, and islands. But it is clear that Salgado operates as a team with his wife, and has done so for his entire career as a photographer.

It is Wanick Salgado, a trained architect and pianist, who edits and designs all his books and exhibitions. “I have lived with my wife since she was 16,” Salgado says. “It’s very difficult for me to know where I begin and she finishes. We have shared so much in our lives together.”

He has long photographed tribal people, and points out that the way he works so closely with his wife mirrors “the concept of the tribe. Family is so important to me. It is the base of all my work.”

The Salgados have two sons, one of whom, now 32, has Down syndrome. He frequently mentions his sons in interviews, and does so now. “Our son with Down syndrome has brought us to another world; the world of the handicapped, and we can see another world through him,” he recounts with pride and delight. As a photographer, this is what he is always doing; travelling to other worlds beyond his ken.

He doesn’t have a favourite body of work, but when asked why he thinks the Serra Pelada pictures made such an impact on the public consciousness, offers this observation. “I think people were very astonished to see 50,000 people working together with no tools, just using their hands. That goes back through the history of humanity. They were, maybe, like mines of the imagination for some people, like King Solomon’s Mines.”

The Amazon exhibition is linked in with the World Wildlife Fund and the Sky Rainforest Rescue, with the aim of raising €2.5 million towards preserving a section of the Brazilian rainforest. Although much rainforest in South America is disappearing due to oil extraction, Salgado does not want to accord blame to any specific organisation.

“We are responsible together,” is his view. “I hope these pictures can add a little bit to the discussion. I have a hope that people will see how important it is to preserve the rainforest.”

Genesis is due to be completed this year, and Salgado has a “big hope” that it will, in time, tour to Dublin. Meanwhile, the Amazon pictures, which form part of the eight-year project, are a magnificent taster.


SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 



~ by FSVSF Admin on 6 March, 2012.

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