Sebastião Salgado, 73, has not taken kindly to the age of iPhone cameras and images that disappear within seconds. He much prefers tattered family albums with pictures looked at again and again, until the edges are frayed from years of use, but the memories remain strong and pass from one generation to the next. Salgado spoke to a small crowd Tuesday night at the Getty Center to coincide with an exhibition at Bergamot Station and a retrospective of his work in San Diego.
He spoke about his life as a photographer and made a very distinct point: "Today there are very few photographers," he said, "but there are a lot of people with cameras." He feels that a photographer is one who puts his life into photography, 24/7, who has become truly comfortable with his subjects, something that can only be gained over time. Indeed, as many of his beautiful images flashed on the screen, images well-known to any devotee of documentary photography, one seemed to epitomize what he was talking about.
It stays in my mind. A beautiful portrait of a young woman from an indigenous tribe found in the Amazon, she has her arms over her head, at peace in a hammock, totally comfortable in her skin and with Salgado, who has recorded the moment with an ease that can only come once you have been fully accepted by the community.
"I never made pictures like a butterfly...You must spend time living with people, and allow yourself to participate in their lives," he says. He is not one to flit from flower to flower. "I prefer long term projects."
His latest project, "Amazonia," on the Amazon and its people, is halfway to completion. After decades of documenting the worst that man can do — to each other and the planet — he has chosen to see that which makes him optimistic: the idea of community and the commonalities that we share as human beings on the planet. He sees the Amazon as the last forest, and if we keep killing it, he says, we will be lost as a species.
So he has spent the last four years, and three or four more to come, recording the beauty of the Amazon and its people as a call for us to preserve what remains before it is too late to save. He sees his body of work as a record of our species, telling the human story. Salgado invoked what Lorca said: man alone is like dust, but together we are something.
He doesn't see himself as the instrument, making photographs. Rather, by immersing himself in these communities, his photography becomes something that both he and his subjects participate in, a very personal connection. "People come to the camera like they are speaking into a microphone," he says. And Salgado seems fulfilled and happy to let his images be their voice.
MOPA San Diego
Sebastião Salgado: Genesis
24 May, 2017 - 30 Sep, 2017
Peter Fetterman Gallery
Sebastião Salgado: A Life in Photography
3 June - 2 September, 2017