Elephant, Kafue National Park, Zambia (©Sebastião Salgado)
Interview Words : Tom Hawker | 14 March

Sebastião Salgado on man's surprising relationship with nature

Photographer Sebastião Salgado talks about his eight-year Genesis project that explores humanity’s relationship with nature – and the surprises it unearthed

(Above) Alarmed elephant, Kafue National Park, Zambia. © Sebastião Salgado

“It’s my love letter to the planet,” says Sebastião Salgado of Genesis, his latest project – completed on 32 trips over eight years.

Throughout his 40-year career, the Brazilian photographer has repeatedly explored man’s deep connection to the natural world. The complicated relationship between humans and their environment has been apparent in previous projects, such as Workers and Migrations; further investigating this theme has led him to spend nearly a decade on Genesis.

Opening at the Natural History Museum on 11 April (complemented by a Taschen book), the Genesis exhibition features 250 extraordinary images of landscapes and wildlife, alongside depictions of human communities that continue to live ‘in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures’.

His journey took him to isolated tribes in the Amazon, West Papua and Sudan, to nomads in the Arctic Circle and jungle communities on Sumatra. He explored the globe, from Antarctica to Central Africa to the glaciers of Alaska.

But before he parks his stall at the Natural History Museum, he gave us a few words.

On Genesis…

“It’s about beginnings. It’s about the unspoiled planet, the most pristine parts, and a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature – the way we used to be. I wanted to present places that were untouched and remain so to this day.

I want to show people our wonderful planet and hope that they can experience what I did, 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. We can only preserve it together.”

On his eight-year journey…

“That’s not a long time compared to the age of our planet. I spent two years researching to find the most untouched landscapes before setting off. I wanted to spend at least two months in each place to really get to know it. I calculated that I could do four trips a year, making a total of 32 trips in eight years. I spent at least eight months of each year on the road, taking photographs. Even in this time, I could only really sample a few places.”

On his inspirations…

“The environment was, of course, the inspiration for this project. Since we set up our environmental organisation, Instituto Terra, in Brazil in the 1990s, I have taken a great interest in nature. I saw that the rainforests of my childhood were destroyed and I wanted to do something about it. The idea came to me that we should show the incredible beauty of nature, not just the destruction that is going on, to inspire people to want to preserve the planet.”

On the problems…

“When I started, one of the biggest challenges for me was photographing landscapes, trees and animals, something that I’ve never done before. The second challenge was finding places that were not yet destroyed.

In Bhutan, I spent two months walking over 600km in the Himalayas but, because of the monsoon rains, I could not use many of the photos I took there – they were not representative of how truly beautiful the area was.

There was the constant threat of malaria in Papua New Guinea. One of my assistants was stung by an insect and his leg turned black. He was sent back to Paris and hospitalised for two months. We were afraid he would lose his leg.”

On his most memorable places…

“Being back in Brazil was fabulous. We were with the tribesmen of southern Amazonia, sharing their lives in the forest, fishing in the rivers and sleeping in hammocks under the trees.

One of the most inspiring places was actually the USA’s Colorado Plateau. A beautiful landscape, it has been turned into a protected area but each year millions of people are still able to see it for themselves, leaving only their footprints behind. It is so nice to see this sort of conservation in action.”

On being inspired by nature…

“After these eight years, I am able to better relate to our planet. Everything that is alive has a sort of rationality about it. Birds know what they need to do to survive and even trees know how to resist the wind and to adapt to different climates.”

On shooting indigenous peoples…

“I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I am just a photographer. I wanted to show how some people are living in equilibrium with the planet, as we did thousands of years ago. I was surprised at how similar we all are; I wanted to show that even the most isolated group of people are the same as we are.”

GenesisGenesis opens at the Natural History Museum on 11 April. You can order your copy of the book, Genesis, by Sebastião Salgado, on Amazon now.