In the lush Amazon, a photographer hopes to document life before it is too late
Updated November 3, 2022 at 2:45 PM ET
Ed. Note: This story includes photos that show nudity.
When photographer Sebastião Salgado visits tribes in the Amazon, he says the people he meets tend not to be interested in his cameras or his satellite phone: "They were very interested by my knife, 'cause my knife has utility for them," he says.
A native of Brazil, Salgado has made more than 58 trips to Amazonia. His photos depict lush tropical trees, dramatic clouds, the sinuous river, as well as the biodiversity of the jungle. The 78-year-old photographer says he flew with the Brazilian military over some of the most inaccessible areas to capture them with his camera.
His new exhibition of photos, Amazônia, is on view in Los Angeles at the California Science Center. Two big gallery spaces are filled with more than 200 large-scale black and white images that almost seem backlit. Salgado says he shot them, as he always does, using natural light. "I don't know how to use artificial lights," he says.
The images are accompanied by an Amazonian soundscape of birds, monkeys, insects, frogs and people's voices, all mixed into music composed for the exhibition by French musician Jean-Michel Jarre.
"It's a beautiful exhibit. The images are enchanting," says Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center.
"You learn a lot about forest, unexpected things about the Amazon. The mountains, the flying rivers," says Rudolph. "The Amazon is a unique system in which it creates its own rain. The trees tap their roots tap as far as 60 meters deep, get water from the system and that water evaporates. By the end of the day, you get these huge clouds and enormous rains."
In some of the photos, you can see those rain clouds above the canopy of trees, immense waterfalls and misty mountain peaks.
"Amazonia is paradise," says Salgado. "The light is amazing, the clouds amazing, the people amazing."
Salgado lives in Paris and has traveled to more than 130 countries, capturing images of genocide, starvation, war and natural disasters. But he always returns to Brazil, where he grew up in another rainforest, along the Atlantic.
For years, he and his wife Leliahave worked to restore a portion of the Atlantic Forest. And they created Instituto Terra, a nature reserve and an institute for reforestation, conservation and environmental education.
Salgado has lived with some of the tribes protected by Brazil's National Indian Foundation. "These Indians in the forest, they are integrated with the water, with the soil, with the forest, with the animals," he says. "It's marvelous to be there with them."
Salgado says they would often arrive surrounded by birds and other animals, one big biodiverse family. He says he slept in hammocks next to them and spoke through interpreters.
"Once one guy asked me, Sebastião, give me your knife when you go.' I said, 'I cannot give it to you because I cannot corrupt your culture. It is forbidden.' He said, 'OK, but your knife is so important. When you get ready to fly in that small plane, just throw your knife over the forest. I know this forest like the lines of my hand. I can find your knife inside the forest.' "
Salgado didn't leave his knife, but he did set up temporary outdoor studios, draping large black backdrops from the trees. He says he did so to highlight the people and distinguish them from the exuberant forest. He shot many portraits of women and men in elaborate headdresses and face paint, children playing with sloths, families sleeping in hammocks and paddling in dugout canoes in the river.
Salgado says his Amazônia photo exhibition is tied to the indigenous and environmental movements in Brazil. It includes videos of tribal leaders talking about the destruction of the rainforest.
"They know they are in danger to disappear, that the Bolsonaro government is destroying the forest in a very high speed," says Salgado. "They are desperate to protect the land, and they are using this show to speak about that problem."
Like them, Salgado blames the outgoing Brazilian government for further endangering and eroding the Amazon. "They are real bandits," he says. "What they are doing, not only in Amazonia but elsewhere in Brazil, is a disaster."
The photographer had longed for a new president, and just days ago, Brazilians elected leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Salgado also says he hopes that in 50 years his exhibition Amazônia is not a documentation of a lost forest, a lost indigenous people, or a lost world.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.