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Genesis by SebastiÃo Salgado

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A new exhibition of 200 photographs in London’s Natural History Museum by the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado takes us to the last unspoilt regions of the planet and is a plea for mankind to protect and restore its most valuable assets.

A huge iceberg like a ruined castle crosses the seas under lowering skies. Deep in a tropical forest, a man climbs a tree, barely distinguishable from the green world that houses and feeds him. Elsewhere, a line of penguins bombs off a cliff into the icy waters near the South Pole. Other photographs show geological strata that are home to the greatest mountain ranges and deepest rivers of the world; the ice palaces of the two poles and the giant sand castles of the deserts between.

   © Sebastião Salgado

These are some of the 200 images in Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s latest exhibition, Genesis. In it, he sets out to explore: ‘the 46% of the planet that is still as it was at the time of the biblical Genesis.’

The exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum is the result of some 30 trips over the past eight years to the remotest parts of the planet in search of ‘pristine regions untouched by progress’, from Siberia to Alaska, Papua New Guinea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Salgado: ‘Genesis is about beginnings. It is about the unspoiled planet, the most pristine parts, and a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature. I wanted to present places that were untouched and remain so to this day. I want people to see our planet in another way, to feel moved and be brought closer to it. I want them to become more conscious of the environment, to feel respect for nature because this is something that is relevant to everyone.’

Opening Salgado’s latest exhibition in London in mid-April 2013, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva stressed both his long friendship with the photographer and his wife Leila Wanick, and his admiration for the couple’s social and ecological commitment over many years.

The conviction that everyone has to make an effort not only to preserve but to restore as much as possible of the planet around us has led Salgado and his wife to create the Instituto Terra, a vastly ambitious ecological project in his home state of Minas Gerais.

In their efforts to return the former cattle ranch owned by his father to the forests he remembers from his childhood, they have planted more than two million trees.

©Julio Etchart

Forced into exile after the military coup in Brazil in 1964, Salgado first worked for the International Coffee Organization and then the World Bank, but in 1974 began his career as a photographer based in Paris.

Since the 1980s, he has chosen to work on extended projects for exhibitions and books that have taken several years to produce. The first book was the relatively modest paperback Other Americas (1986), a radical look at six countries in Salgado’s native Latin America through a lens firmly focused on the otherwise largely overlooked lives of ordinary (i.e. poor) working people.

Over the decades Salgado pressed onwards with geographically and historically -and politically- bigger themes with monosyllabic titles like Workers (1993); Terra (1997); Migrations (2000); and Portraits (2000).

Together with Latin America, Africa has drawn Salgado back time after time. From being the subject of another early work, Sahel (1986) to the more recent Africa (2007), by way of A Certain Grace (1990), Salgado has consciously vindicated the dignity and beauty of people in some of the most exploited regions of the world.

Challenged by certain critics with ‘glamourising poverty’ I remember seeing him genuinely perplexed that his images should be read that way. In a 1994 interview Salgado told me: “Why would I photograph them [migrant Sudanese and Ethiopians] less conscientiously than anyone else because they are poor? The photographs themselves may be beautiful: I work hard and so does my printer to ensure well-made images. But the viewer needs to see what the camera sees. Not just poverty but also that these peoples are among the most gracious and graceful in the world”.

This grace and beauty is at the heart of his latest exhibition, which is what he calls ‘my love letter to the world.’

‘The idea came to me that we should show the incredible beauty of nature, not just the destruction that is going on, but also to inspire people to want to preserve the planet. In a sense, we humans are the biggest ‘predator’ of the planet. We are the ones consuming the resources and products it provides.’

© Sebastião Salgado

‘We only care about ourselves, our comfort and our needs. We can’t just criticise the companies that pollute and destroy nature, because we are the ones consuming their products and justifying their activities – and through the stock market we are, in the last instance, the ‘owners’ of these same companies.’

Although many of the images are a warning of the dangers facing people, animals, and places throughout the planet, Salgado in his work as a photographer and in his efforts to restore the native forests in his own birthplace continues to insist that not all is lost: Genesis is creation.