Wednesday, 3 September, 2014

Published April 25, 2014
Unearthing pristine nature
Famed documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado tells RACHEL LOI how his latest exhibition, Genesis, came into being
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Scenic route: In the Upper Xingu region of Brazil's Mato Grosso state, a group of Waura Indians fish in the Puilanga Lake near their village. The Upper Xingu Basin is home to an ethnically-diverse population, with the 2,500 inhabitants of 13 villages speaking languages with distinct Carib, Tupi and Arawak roots. While they occupy different territories and preserve their own cultural identities, they co-exist in peace. Brazil. 2005. © Sebastiao Salgado / Amazonas images

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HE may be 70 this year, but the legendary documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado is not about to retire his trusty cameras any time soon.

"I don't know how long I will keep doing this, but photographers live long," says the Brazilian national, with a chuckle. "I knew a lot of photographers who were 85, 90 years old and still going strong. That means I'll probably go on for a while ... it's not a problem of age, it's all in your mind."

In fact, Salgado's latest exhibition, a show of 245 pictures called Genesis, took him eight years of trekking across the globe in search of untouched natural environments in over 30 countries. Genesis premiered at the Natural History Museum in London last April, and has now made its way to the National Museum of Singapore where it will run from tomorrow till July 27.

According to Salgado, the idea for this exhibition came about when he returned to his family's farm in Brazil in 1998, and realised most of the rainforests he grew up with both in and around the farm had been destroyed.

So, together with his wife, Lelia Deluiz Wanick, who designed and curated Genesis, they embarked on a project to replant these lost trees.

"Today there are millions of trees planted. And we have the wildlife coming back - jaguars, crocodiles, birds and insects," says Salgado, with a satisfied grin. "That forest gave me the idea to do Genesis; to go see what was not yet destroyed on the planet. And I was surprised to discover that close to half the planet remains yet as the day of genesis," he adds.

Some of the photos in this exhibition feature natural landscapes like the Grand Canyon, or icebergs in the Antarctic Peninsula, while others capture wildlife like penguins and elephants, among others.

Through his pictures, Salgado hopes to give people a sample of the part of nature that is yet untouched, and show that it is worth preserving.

He explains: "When we live in big cities like Singapore, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, we forget nature. We forget that the planet is very nice - it gives us oxygen. But we destroy trees. And if we aren't careful, oxygen will be a problem for us one day. If oxygen is finished, we're finished."

"We need to give back something to the planet, otherwise one day the planet will make us pay the bill," he explains.

Salgado took his first photos in 1973, when his wife one day brought home a Pentax camera. Since then, he has built a formidable reputation for himself as a pioneer in black and white film photography.

He recently made a rather reluctant switch from film to digital while working on Genesis, when airport security X-Rays were proving harmful to his film.

While he appreciates the high quality of digital images, and the convenience of 16-gigabyte memory cards over 36-shot film rolls, Salgado still disapproves of the way digital photography has diluted the value of the medium. "There's a difference between image and photography," Salgado insists. "Photography is the materialisation of the act. You shoot, you print, and you can touch it. But the image is a concept. You cannot touch it. You tap a button and it disappears. So in the future we will still have the image, but photography itself is disappearing," he says.

Because of this, while shooting with a digital SLR for Genesis, he refused to look at what he had shot, until his assistants had converted the digital files into old-fashioned contact sheets and negatives for him to work on.

And his resistance is also partly because of his age, he admits. "I'm an old-fashioned photographer because I'm an old man. I don't know how to use computers," Salgado says with a sheepish laugh.

And when asked if he has tips from his decades of experience behind the viewfinder, the humble ex-Magnum photographer says techniques are the easy part - all it takes is practice and experimenting and anyone can get it.

But one advice he does have is this: "If you want to do the kind of photography I did, go take a class in anthropology, or sociology, or something to understand the society you live in. That way you can link your photography with social movements.

"It'll be better than having a good camera or be very smart with framing ... because you photograph not with technique. You photograph with your soul, spirit, mind, and ideology. Photography is a materialisation of your dreams."

'Genesis' runs at the National Museum of Singapore Exhibition Gallery 2, Basement, from tomorrow till July 27. Opening hours are from 10am to 6pm daily. Admission is free. Log on to for more information