Jutai River. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.
Jutai River. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.

"Why did I return to the Amazon?”, asks Sebastião Salgado in the presentation of his recent work named after “the forest that extends to infinity”. Now, eight years after the start of his venture in the Amazon, the photographer manages to answer that he returned not for the dark side – the fires, deforestation, the poisoning of rivers by miners, drug trafficking – but to savor the incomparable beauty of the Amazon. and renew your bond with the native peoples who care for the forest so diligently.

View of the exhibition at Sesc Pompeia, in São Paulo. Photo: Everton Ballardin/Courtesy Sesc
View of the exhibition at Sesc Pompeia, in São Paulo. Photo: Everton Ballardin/Courtesy Sesc

“When I started photographing the Amazon, it was by no means in evidence. I thought I had to do the photographs. I felt the biome threatened and I saw a very big difference between the Amazon of the 1980s and then the Amazon of the early 2000s”. Without a specific project in mind (whether it was the publication or the traveling exhibition that is now on the Sesc Pompeii, in São Paulo), Salgado's urgency led him to travel through the forest from the state of Pará to Amazonas, from Acre to Rondônia, Maranhão to Mato Grosso. The comprehensive movements were always foreseen by FUNAI – Fundação Nacional do Índio, responsible for protecting the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the national territory. “Before finalizing plans to visit a specific group, they consulted the community to see if they would be willing to welcome someone from outside. In my case, a photographer,” he says. “Through FUNAI, I hired a translator for each trip, usually someone of the ethnic group in question, who had spent some time abroad and, therefore, learned Portuguese”. Prior to entering the jungle, Salgado and his team stocked up on food, as part of the agreement to be there was not to depend on the community for food. Other essentials also traveled with them: antivenom, solar panels, water purification solution, iPod. In order to be fair and contracted, it was also necessary to complete a ten-day “quarantine” when they arrived at the designated FUNAI post, in order to avoid the transmission of diseases, viruses and bacteria from outside to indigenous peoples.

Ashaninka family. State of Acre, Brazil, 2016. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.
Ashaninka family. State of Acre, Brazil, 2016. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.

Since the adoption of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, 26% of the Amazon – equivalent to 13% of the entire Brazilian territory – has been reserved exclusively for indigenous communities, recalls the photographer. In this immensity, Salgado recorded majestic natural events through the air, such as aerial rivers and Amazonian mountains, and water, through weeks of navigating the Rio Negro. Back on earth he accompanied tribes in hunting, fishing and in rituals where his presence was allowed. “In most villages, the density of the bush completely blocks the view from a distance. The sky itself is framed by giant trees. When members of indigenous communities go hunting or fishing, they completely disappear within seconds. Therefore, whenever I accompanied them, I was in the habit of keeping close to their heels, not losing sight of them for a second for fear of losing me.”

Within the villages, a mobile studio was also improvised and invited those who felt comfortable to have their portrait taken. Despite the artificiality, the smoothness of the canvas – as opposed to the texture of the vegetation – provided a more appropriate field for traditional objects and customs to surface, without distractions. Meanwhile, his journey up the Rio Negro and through the Anavilhanas National Park took him to the mouth of the Jaú River, cruising at reduced speed, just a few meters from the trees. “We had such heavy rain that the boat stopped due to a total lack of visibility. The cloud formations were so beautiful, so voluminous and so dramatic that they made us feel the size of our insignificance.” Giant piranhas and boa constrictors prevented him from diving into the Rio Negro, even so, Salgado managed to bathe himself in the humidity of the aerial rivers – torrents of steam that form over the forest –, photographing them from within. From above, the photographer had a view of the largest mountain massifs in Brazil: “The Amazon we were used to was a flat territory, with rivers that meandered through it; a part of the Amazon really is a big plain, but a big part is an incredible amount of mountains”. Such aerial landscapes, rare in photographic documentation, were explored with the help of the Brazilian army, which allowed Salgado to immerse himself in his missions. According to him, the distances are such that only the military, who cover the entire country and who have dozens of scattered bases, can reach these places.

Jutai River. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.
Jutai River. State of Amazonas, Brazil, 2017. Photo: Sebastião Salgado.

“The Brazilian army has a very interesting characteristic in the Amazon: the vast majority of the body, which are the soldiers, the army base, is indigenous”, says Salgado. “They know the forest, they come from the forest. And what is the function of an army? It is to defend national sovereignty. And the Amazon, the Amazon biome, represents almost 50% [49.29%] of the Brazilian territory”. For Salgado, the level of banditry in the current Amazon is worrying and makes such a defense essential. “The current government, which is a related government of the militias, has facilitated and brought violence to the Amazon in an incredible way.” He warns, however, of the differences between the young officers who are in the forest and the so-called reserve military. “Which is a contradiction, you see, the participation of officers, mainly reserve officers of the Brazilian army, in the current predatory government – ​​who are old generals still related to the dictatorship, old generals still very close to a certain right-wing idea – there is a brutal difference with the new officers, with the base, which are the soldiers, who are there inside the Amazon defending it”. 

The photographer recalls that, during his career, his contact with Brazilian troops took place more outside the country than inside the national territory, whether in United Nations missions in Angola, or in the Bosnian War, where soldiers participated unarmed as observers of the UN itself. This contact created in him an admiration that compels him to make the following political request: “For me, the Brazilian left will have to change [in relation to the army]. The Brazilian left still condemns the Brazilian army [for its participation in the 1964 coup], but I think it would have to change, it would have to make a move towards the army, because by excluding the army and excluding itself from the army, it leaves the place for the extreme right to enter there as it did with the Bolsonaro government”. In Salgado's view, the defense of this movement comes from the essentiality of the armed forces in all countries of the world; “whether from the left or from the right, it doesn't matter, it's a technical body that the country depends on, which is an important, strong institution that has to be neutral”.

back to planet

At 78, Salgado believes “in the idea of ​​scope, of community, of bringing within what you want to show; the opponent, the opponent is not an enemy that you have to kill in radicalism, I think the opponent is a future partner that you have to bring, to conquer”.

On the other hand, an injection of a certain type of more radical activism can be substantial to the issues of the environment and its preservation, after all “neutral ecology becomes complicit in the injustice of a world where healthy food, clean water, air pure and silence are not everyone's rights – but privileges of the few who can pay for them”, as suggested by Eduardo Galeano. In this sense, unbridled modernization worries both, “today we no longer belong to our planet…” laments Salgado, highlighting the level of dependence of urbanized society on the world of the expressway. “We don't know how to live without the assistance that was created around us, we lost this ability in relation to the earth, in relation to the planet and I think we would have to organize the return to the planet, we had to learn from the planet, to return spiritually to the planet if we want to survive as a species”.

Was Salgado's criticism sufficiently categorical? By choosing to highlight only life in the forest, does the photographer run the risk of presenting it as immortal?

“The Amazon is still a paradise, it is still one of the most wonderful places on the planet, and it has to be divine. The Amazon is paradise and paradise has to be defended, we cannot throw paradise into hell”, he defends. But apart from the noble merit of the question, perhaps the dilemma lies in the possibility that the images – sublime, with beautiful striking contrasts, with tormented and imposing skies – do not trigger the impulse to do something about it so that the biome does not travel the opposite way of Dante. It can be said that the danger of presenting the biome as a slice of the sacred is that, in this kind of narrative, even after the end of time there is still the second coming of the savior. The threat of messianic discourse grows. Passivity is not considered so serious. Commitment collection is a gentleman's agreement.

His Instituto Terra, founded in 1998 with his wife and partner, architect and environmentalist Lélia Wanick Salgado, meets the urgency that another Brazilian biome requires, the Atlantic Forest. The institute is located in the mining town of Aimorés, where the photographer's family's old cattle farm was located and, in just over 20 years, it made possible the planting of more than 2 million tree seedlings (using more than 290 native species Atlantic Forest) within the Bulcão Farm, an area recognized as a private natural heritage reserve (RPPN). During that time, the institute also invested in the recovery of springs in the Rio Doce Hydrographic Basin and in the production of native seedlings – 6 million so far – for its own and third-party reforestation. Furthermore, by 2023, Terra expects to have completed the first phase of its Atlantic Forest gene bank project. The program started in 2018 and its objective is to guarantee the continuity of species found in Vale do Rio Doce, highlighted by the institute itself as “an area of ​​highly degraded Atlantic Forest with the threat of extinction of several native species”. The logistics and progress of the enterprise are attributed to Lélia, who signs the expography of the recent show at Sesc Pompeia, as well as the editing, design and production of the book Amazon. It was even her idea that the exhibition should be filled with music. “Amazonia is a very musical region, the indigenous people are very musical, they sing a lot, there are many parties and many instruments. Lélia traveled a lot in the Amazon with me and she absolutely wanted us to bring music to the exhibition”.

With the purpose of creating the soundtrack to serve as the guiding thread of the exhibition, Jean-Michel Jarre, a popular composer and producer in France (considered a pioneer of electronic music), had access to the collections of the Museum of Ethnology in Geneva, which recovering sounds from the entire Amazon for years. Indigenous songs and instruments also appear in another sound experience, the projection with portraits of members of the tribes that Salgado visited. The music in this space was in charge of the group Pau Brasil, from São Paulo, together with Marlui Miranda. A final projection of landscapes pays homage to conductor Heitor Villa-Lobos playing “Erosão (Origin of the Amazon River)”. 

at the end of Amazon, Salgado appeals: “To survive as a culture, these peoples cannot simply be objects of anthropological interest. [They] must contribute and also benefit from the sustainable development of the Amazon through its extraordinary botanical wealth, renewable in exotic spices, nuts or plants with medicinal and cosmetic properties.” In this last speech, the defense of indigenous rights and the preservation of the biome goes hand in hand with pragmatism, considering that “according to satellite images, in contrast to private lands, with gigantic national parks or public lands owned by the State , there were very few occurrences of fire or acts of deforestation within the indigenous reserves”. And as the photographer himself had already seen before: “When a part of the forest is cut down, it is as if that forest has no value… We throw it on the ground, set it on fire, destroy it to establish livestock”. And how much does the forest cost? “The price that is necessary to put in place to rebuild that hectare of forest”, he replies. “If 10 hectares of forest are cut down, you are cutting down more than 200 million dollars. Never in the history of this rural property – which will settle where the forest was destroyed – will produce the amount of capital that it destroyed”.

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