Mata Atlantica, or Atlantic Forest, is found in the Northeast of Paraguay on the Atlantic coast from which it derives its name – but also in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. One of the gigantic forest spaces essential to life in Brazil, just as much as the Amazon.
This crucial ecosystem has long been threatened with destruction. From colonization and the quest for the famous Pau Brasil (brazilwood), then for some decades rampant deforestation due to the propensity of Brazil to obey the blind law of markets and business. The problem is exacerbated by increased urbanization. Mata Atlantica was once spread over 1,300,000 km². Only 7% remains today, scattered along the Brazilian coastline.
One man stood up against this brutality and decided to reforest one of the disaster areas. A photographer, known throughout the world for his striking shots in black and white. A humanist revolted by the sight of the damage inexorably caused to the environment, a troublemaker looked upon with distaste by the current Brazilian government. Sebastiao Salgado doesn´t care: it is not his first confrontation with the Brazilian authorities and nothing will deflect him from his mission.
Sebastiao Salgado, an extraordinary Brazilian photographer
Ex-military lobbyists and relentless developers do not impress the seventy-five year old. He has already paid heavily for his ideas. Like many of his compatriots, he “chose” exile after the establishment of the dictatorship in Brazil in 1969. He left for Europe, Paris to be exact. At the time, Sebastião Salgado did not even know how to use a camera properly. In fact, he was a senior economist, who worked in several ministries and started a PhD in economics at the University of São Paulo. His forced stay in Paris gave him the opportunity to write a dissertation on agricultural economics.
His diploma opened the doors of the FAO (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) in Rome, where he carried out several internships, before turning to the ICO (the International Coffee Organization) which took him to Africa. On his way, he decided to take a small camera, strictly as a working tool. This Leica would quickly make him realize the power of photography as the ultimate instrument of testimony. “I realized that images gave me ten times more pleasure than economic reports,” he says later. After a few years of procrastination, he decided to pursue a photographic career in 1973.
Sebastiao Salgado, from economics to film
Photographs explain his daily reality and his opinions. Photography allows him to show everyone the world as he sees it, without long and tedious explanations. Soon after his decision to pursue this line of work, Sebastiao Salgado became a respected professional photographer, working for large institutions such as Sygma, Gamma and finally Magnum in the late seventies, the agency in which he would remain the longest. This was up until he opened his own agency: Amazonas Images was founded in Paris in 1994, with the essential contribution of his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado.
With his signature shots exclusively in black and white, Sebastiao Salgado testifies to the miseries of the world, all of them. Whether they are social or ecological. The disinherited in Latin America, the hungry nomads of the Sahel, the rural workers, the homeless, deforestation, the Brazilian photographer points his lens wherever misfortune strikes. The armed conflicts that tear apart the most vulnerable parts of the planet see him traveling the world, from Angola to the Spanish Sahara, from Entebbe to Latin America. Some use his motivation as a stick to beat him. Big media outlets like the New York Times have in the past accused him of taking advantage of human misery to get rich. Not to mention others in power who come down hard on his rather leftist position.
Salgado, unique photographic work between art, humanism and politics
While it is undeniable that his splendid books sold in the hundreds of thousands have brought him money and notoriety, Sebastião Salgado rejects the attacks he faces by advancing his role as witness and informant on the injustice and oppression in the world. The beauty of the pictures remind us that this man with the steely looks is one of the best photographers in the world. His images make people aware of the hard life at the bottom of open mines in South America or in the asphyxiating deserts of Africa. This permanent theme of Salgado´s is found throughout the 346 black and white shots of his book “Workers” published in 1993 which would establish his international reputation.
Beyond the political quarrels, this work has mostly brought honor and recognition to the name Sebastião Salgado. His contributions, both artistic and financial, to public charities such as UNICEF, UNHCR, and WHO have positioned him as a valuable matchmaker between more and less well-off people.
In addition, he and his wife have made a long-term commitment to public health; they are involved in issues such as polio eradication around the world. The most spectacular action however, and most entrenched in the current debate on climate change, would occur in 1994 in concert with the foundation of their Parisian photography agency.
The resurrection of the Aimorés family forest
Sebastião Salgado had not returned to his homestead near the city of Aimorés, Minas Gerais, since his forced departure to Europe in 1969. Upon his return, he expected the lush and beautiful Atlantic Forest. Instead he discovered with absolute dread, dead and dry hills, victims of bulldozers and other scrapers used by large companies responsible for large-scale deforestation in order to extract iron ore. The Salgado couple decided to buy the land and replant everything!
“Instituto Terra” against the emptiness
Money is obviously not a problem for the multi-award winning photographer. The will and the courage to lead this titanic project however is immense. Sebastião and Lélia founded an environmental organization dedicated to sustainable development, called “Instituto Terra”. The institution employs about twenty people, and above all welcomes hundreds of volunteers from all over the world to join the great work. It took nearly twenty years of hard graft and self-sacrifice to achieve the desired result: today, nearly 2 million saplings of Mata Atlantica trees have been replanted on over 600 hectares of land! Sebastião Salgado can once again enjoy his family farm “Fazenda Bulcão” drowned under the greenery that fills the hills as far as the eye can see.
This rejuvenated eco – system has seen the return of disappeared fauna including birds, mammals and reptiles. In total, more than 200 endangered species have found a welcoming ecosystem. Ecological success is the aim of this enormous project, even if its initiator attracts the wrath of many Brazilian decision-makers who have not given up in their will to destroy the Earth to their profit.
The fight is of course not over. Sebastião Salgado has led for decades with his work and ambitious objectives. His books, his exhibitions, his world-wide recognition warn of the humanitarian urgency not to let the blind profiteers cut off the branch on which humanity is sitting.