Sebastião Salgado: ‘I was transformed into an environmentalist’

Over the course of 50 years, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has traveled to more than 120 countries, creating lasting images of events like the Kuwait oil fires and the Rwandan genocide, as well as capturing the humanity of workers, migrants, and indigenous communities worldwide. Yet this man, who was seemingly born to take photographs, nearly quit his vocation right at the height of his powers – following his firsthand experiences of the genocide in Rwanda, Salgado became so depressed by what he had witnessed that he felt that he could not go on.

Related: ‘Paradise exists!’: Sebastião Salgado’s stunning voyage into Amazônia

“During the genocide in Rwanda,” Salgado told the Guardian, “I was doing a book about exodus – migration. What I saw there was so violent that I became sick. I felt depression, my health was not well. I went to see a doctor-friend, who told me ‘you’re dying, you must stop what you’re doing.’ So I stopped, I went to Brazil, and I made a decision to abandon photography and to become a peasant and work the land.”

From that creative crisis was born Salgado’s Instituto Terra, an ecological center founded on a devastated former ranch in Brazil’s state of Minas Gerais. Since 1998, Salgado and his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, have overseen the reforestation of the area, planting millions of trees and developing initiatives and technology to rebuild land ruined by deforestation. The Instituto Terra is the beneficiary of a lavish new exhibit of Salgado’s photographs, Sebastião Salgado: Magnum Opus, organized and hosted by Sotheby’s at its York Avenue headquarters.

Sebastião Salgado
Sebastião Salgado Photograph: Lucas Landau/Reuters

“Our institution must keep going,” said Salgado, “so [my wife Lélia and I] made a decision to make an endowment. Sothebys offered us an amazing gift, and 100% of this money goes to the endowment for the Instituto. Our hope is to arrive at the opening with all of the pictures sold, which would amount to about $2.6m.”

Magnum Opus is the largest curated photographic solo exhibition that Sotheby’s has ever mounted, bringing together work from 40 years of Salgado’s career. It is a chance to see many of Salgado’s greatest hits, among them a striking shot of a mud-covered worker bent over in exhaustion while hauling a heavy load up out of the Serra Pelada gold mine; two members of the Mixe indigenous community in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, arms outstretched while gazing out into the clouds as though they are about to fly off; and refugees from the 1983-85 Ethiopian famine huddled around a massive tree trunk while godlike rays of sunlight penetrate down diagonally around them.

The show emerged from excitement around Salgado’s most recent project, Amazônia, for which he spent six years trekking through the Amazon rain forest and living among 12 different tribes while photographing members of the community. “When I first went to Amazonia, I was a little bit afraid,” said Salgado. “How would it be possible to work with these communities where I didn’t understand the language? They were probably 2,000 or 3,000 years away from me, completely isolated in this forest. It was amazing. Arriving there, in less than two hours I felt at home, because I was going inside my own community, the community of the homo sapiens.”

The offerings from the series at Magnum Opus includes the intense portrait of Bela Yawanawá of the village Mutum, who wears an enormous headdress encircling her face and chest while jagged lines of face paint spring out from her penetrating eyes. It also includes an intimate family portrait of the Pina Korubo clan, made after Salgado had spent three years developing his relationship with them. “To photograph you need time,” said Salgado, “you need to come to the communities, you must discuss things with them, you must integrate. You are living with the people and become a part of the community.”

Whether it is in the tight close-up portrait of a young indigenous woman gazing forcefully into the camera, or a naturalistic photo of a man painting the back of a woman whose hair is pinned up with a flower ornament, Salgado’s insistence that there is more that unites us than divides us rings true throughout Amazônia.

“When I photographed animals, it was difficult, because I was trying to understand their logic,” said Salgado. “But working with humans, it was easier, because there was no difference between us.”

Magnum Opus also features a rich assortment from Salgado’s eight-year worldwide Genesis series, in which the photographer turned away from the world of human toil and struggle that had defined his career, instead looking at pristine expanses of nature. It is in this series that viewers can see awe-inspiring, godlike views of vast tracts of land, Salgado masterfully harnessing clouds, mists, tones and lighting to give these images an epic feel.

“For Genesis I went to see what was pristine on the planet,” said Salgado. “I had previously photographed just one animal, humans, and now I went to photograph all kinds of animals. Through this work I was transformed into an environmentalist.”

Genesis’s glories include an unmissable photo of the remote Brooks mountain range in northern Alaska, as well as an image of gravity-defying towers of Antarctic ice that is a tour-de-force of complex lighting and precision technique. The animals in Genesis include a charming image of a line of penguins waiting for their turn to flop into the ocean from an iceberg deep in the south Atlantic, the haunting, inky black portrait of a leopard staring into its reflection as it bends over a pool of water to drink, and an extreme close-up of the hand of an iguana, looking like a human hand encased in armor.

Reflecting on making of his iguana photo, Salgado exclaimed, “When you go [to the Galapagos Islands], you see all your brothers! I say ‘brothers’ because when I made that picture of the hand of the iguana, I realized it’s exactly the hand of a warrior from the Middle Ages. It’s exactly the same! And in that moment, looking through my lens, I understood that the iguana was my relative.”

Designed to mimic the feel of a museum-style exhibition, and with immersive music selected by Sebastião and Lélia Salgado, Magnum Opus is a very ambitious show that transports its audience far away from the dense urban environment surrounding it. “I’ve been at Sotheby’s in the photograph department since 2007, and I’ve never seen a project of this magnitude and importance,” said Emily Bierman, senior vice-president, Global Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s. “It’s looking beyond what we do on a daily basis of planning an exhibition for sale. This is a very different project.”

Of the many reasons one should spend some time visiting Magnum Opus, perhaps the most pertinent is that these photographs inspire feelings that we do not get enough of. Looking at Salgado’s work, one feels a sense of connection with the people and animals inhabiting the world around us, as well as thankfulness for the splendor that exists all over the Earth.

“The emotions I have felt most deeply while looking at Salgado’s work have been gratitude and wonder,” said Bierman. “There’s a whole world out there that he has devoted his life to, and through his photographs you get to travel. I get a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for his work.”

  • Sebastião Salgado: Magnum Opus is showing until 12 October at Sotheby’s New York