Interview With Sebastião Salgado: Genesis

Kaitlyn Battista
Oct 2, 2014 5:30PM

The timing for the opening of Sebastião Salgado’s eight-years-in-the-making, epic project Genesis, on view at the International Center of Photography from September 19 to January 11, 2015, could not be more ideal or inspiring. With both a UN Climate Summit and a People’s Climate March (expected to include an unprecedented number of participants) also taking place in New York within the next week, Salgado’s exhibition, curated by his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, is a call to action. Salgado—who has focused on poverty and starvation in his work in the Sahel, child refugees and migrants in The Children (Aperture, 2000), the struggle of the landless peasants in Brazil in Terra (1997), the end of manual labor in Workers (Aperture, 1993), and the displacement of the world’s people at the end of the twentieth century with Migrations (Aperture, 2000)—does not consider himself an activist. Rather, he said to me simply, “I am a photographer. Photography is my life, and my way of life.”

And yes, he is first and foremost a photographer, committed to rendering our quickly evolving world as he experiences it. His view is infused with empathy and a deep engagement with his subject. With Genesis, which was published as a book last year, for the first time he has focused on animals and the landscape, as well as people who are still living as they lived for centuries. In his new book, From My Land to the Planet (2014), Salgado writes of Genesis: “I wanted to recount the dignity and the beauty of life in all its forms and show how we all share the same origins. . . . For me, it has nothing to do with religion, but indicates that harmony in the beginning that enabled the diversification of the species: this miracle of which we are all part.”

Speaking with him for thirty minutes or so during the final stages of the exhibition’s installation, his sense of wonder and his belief in the planet’s resilience resonate passionately. His prognosis for humanity? Well, he’s more circumspect . . . but still hopeful. What follows are a few excerpts from our conversation.

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—Melissa Harris, September 17, 2014, New York

Kaitlyn Battista