Looking at death can make you start dying. The photographer’s eye has no natural protective layers; no special screen or filter. It absorbs and sucks in everything it sees. Death invaded Sebastião Salgado through his camera lens in 1994, when he was documenting the bloody slaughter in Rwanda.
What he loved the most about photography – the possibility of encapsulating a fleeting moment forever on film – became his curse. The deaths he captured in his photographs would remain etched inside him, in his mind and body. After his return from the Rwandan hell, Salgado began suffering from various ailments. Infections were blooming all over his body. When making love with his wife, he would ejaculate blood instead of semen. After a series of tests, his doctor told him: “Sebastião, you aren’t ill. Your prostate is in perfect condition. But you have seen so much death you are starting to die yourself. You must stop doing what you do, or you will end up dead.”
And so the photographer decided to go looking for lost life back where it began. He went to the place where he was born and raised: the Bulcão Farm, nestled in a lush rainforest in the Brazilian state Minas Gerais. In his memory, it was paradise. Salgado’s heart vibrated with the sounds of birdsongs and images of baths with caimans in the river. When he got there after all those years, instead of the life he sought so desperately, he saw more death. The forest was almost completely gone. “The soil was as ill as I was,” he would reminisce many years later. It was his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, who came up with the idea of how to heal the land. One day, she said to her husband: “You were born in a paradise, so we shall rebuild it.” She suggested they start replanting trees.
The first year was hard. Most of the trees they planted failed to adapt. But as time went by, the losses went down. Beige deserts started sprouting green patches. The new forest caused the return of many animals: 30 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, and 15 species of reptiles and amphibians. Eight dried-up springs once again become alive with swift currents. The searing heat subdued, replaced with more frequent rainfalls; the air had cooled down. Rebuilding the rainforest with all its life-giving potential took the couple two decades. Over two million trees they planted brought life back to the barren soil, and Sebastião Salgado started to regain his health. His interest in photography was reignited.
The pictures he took after he recovered were very different from Salgado’s previous works, in which he focused on human suffering. The artist used to photograph the toil of workers who sweated blood in a Brazilian goldmine like Egyptian slaves. The wandering of homeless, skeleton-thin refugees, running away from hunger or war. He watched countless images of death, shifted from one pile to another by diggers ploughing through the landfills of human bodies. His black-and-white photographs were portraits of poverty, misery and destruction in their most primal form – as if his lens became a witness of the birth of evil and suffering. Some critics, raptured by the remarkable grandiosity of Sagaldo’s photographs, compared his works to the divine gaze. It would be difficult to contest their judgement, but Sagaldo’s God was a God watching the fall of his own creation. If the first chapter of the Brazilian’s artistic activity was making a visual account of the paradise lost, then the next one became the Genesis. And indeed, this was the name Salgado gave to his new project.
“This time, I let nature speak to my lens,” said Salgado, describing the eight years of his work, crowned with the publication of a series of black-and-white pictures, depicting an Earth unspoilt by civilization. The photographs, published in 2013, presented animals and volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands; penguins, sea lions, cormorants and whales that live in the Antarctic and the Southern Atlantic; Brazilian alligators and jaguars; African lions, cheetahs and elephants; the secluded tribe of Zo’é people, hidden deep in the Amazon; the Papua New Guinea tribe of Korowai, who live in trees; the pastoral people of Dinka from Sudan, and the nomadic reindeer breeders from beyond the Arctic circle; the deep gorges of the Grand Canyon, Alaskan glaciers, the volcanoes of Central Africa, sands of Sahara, and countless other miracles of nature that could vanish any moment now.
The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is thinning out the Amazon Forest at a frightening rate. According to the most recent government data, every minute a patch of forest the size of three football fields is being cut down. Climate change-induced desertification is decimating the herds of African shepherds, fuelling bloody conflicts over the land they share with agriculture-focused tribes. Hundreds of reindeer from the Norwegian island of Svalbard have starved to death due to climate change. The increase of the average temperature, caused by carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, is threatening the glaciers to melt, which will lead to the beginning of the end of life on Earth as we know it. Salgado says Genesis is a love letter to our planet.
“That is the essence of our life, these forests. The only factory capable to transform CO2 into oxygen are the forests,” Salgado said during his TED conference lecture in May 2013. He was absolutely right. Come July the same year, scientists from the Swiss polytechnic ETH in Zürich announced tree-planting the most effective and cheapest way of combating climate change. According to their calculations, reforestation of almost a billion hectares of land could remove two thirds of the 300 gigatons of carbon dioxide humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution to this day. The Swiss scientists claim that the Earth could easily accommodate 0.9 billion hectares of additional forest space at no cost to existing urban and farming areas. It would be an area equal to the size of the US. “Tree planting is a climate change solution that doesn’t require President Trump to immediately start believing in climate change, or scientists to come up with technological solutions to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Professor Tom Crowther, the research team leader from the Swiss university ETH Zürich. “It is available now, it is the cheapest one possible, and every one of us can get involved.”
The story of Lélia and Sebastião Salgado shows that all it takes is two people and 20 years to rebuild a 607-hectare forest. It is too little to save the entire world, but enough to revive a dead ecosystem and bring a dying photographer back to life. It is also a tale of a bond that ties humans to Earth. “We must reconnect with our planet,” called Sebastião at a meeting with the African priests who took part in the reforestation initiative. The Brazilian artist included this message in his photographs, depicting a world in which humans live in harmony with nature. Instead of robbing the Earth, they use its riches and know-how to listen to its calls. Just like it was at the beginning of creation. Genesis is a record of beauty, and of the life we must fight for. The forest Sebastião has rebuilt together with his wife is proof that such a fight is not a lost cause, after all.
Translated by Aga Zano