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Until only a few months ago, the renowned photographer Sebastiao Salgado, 77, together with his wife Lélia, were touring the Amazon forests in order to document both the lives of the surviving indigenous peoples as well as the destruction of vast portions of the Amazon. The result, after their six years of work, is the outstanding and atmospheric exhibition in the MAXXI museum in Rome called “Amazônia”, which opened October 1 and remains on view through February 13.

On exhibit are 200 of Selgado’s dramatically lit photographs from that vast Amazon region. Blown up on the large scale, they are splendidly displayed. In addition, each of six small enclosures offers an exhibit section dedicated to the indigenous peoples photographed. Within these parlor-like enclosures are introductory videos, including one by an eloquent tribal chieftain. At Léila’s suggestion, the photographs are accompanied by music composed and performed by Jean-Michel Jarre, which are inspired by the sounds of nature.

The area of the Amazon is ten times the size of France, and 60% of it lies within Brazil. Covering 2.2 million square miles of dense forests, Amazônia is home to half of the tropical forests on our planet. The Amazon River alone is almost 4,000 miles long and second only to the Nile. Besides Brazil, the territory spans Boliva, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

The biodiversity of this huge territory is notoriously endangered. The Amazon forests are under constant siege by businessmen who set fire to the woodlands in order to plant crops. In the year 2019, over 45,000 square miles were burned, almost twice that of 2018. This deforestation releases significant amounts of carbon, with “negative consequences” worldwide, says the World Wildlife Fund, with “a clear link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet”. And the fires continue.

“The main threats identified are linked to the patterns of economic development in Brazil, and the current political and economic context points to a worrisome conservation scenario in the near future”, according to a study by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Long Island.  The existence of some 3,300 animal and plant species is also threatened.

Even worse is destruction to the lives of the indigenous peoples. In the 16th century, when Brazil was only just being explored, including by missionaries, its indigent population was of some 5 million. Today the number of survivers has shrunk to barely 370,000. As Salgado himself has said, “Every year tens of thousand of farm businessmen seize ever more lands”. They justify their seizures by saying that such a small number of surviving indigenous peoples has no real right to own so much land.

The exhibition, curated by wife Lélia, highlights the fragility of this ecosystem. The photographs, devoted to people, islands, rivers, mountains, forests and tropical storms, vary considerably.

Selgado was born and grew up on a large but remote ranch in Brazil’s Minas Gerais. That landscape with its dramatic lighting, he has said, inspired him to love photography long before he even owned a camera. “This is where I learned to see the light”, he told a Smithsonian magazine reporter.

From his isolated farm home Selgado left at age 15 to attend a boarding school on the Brazilian coast. After marriage to Lélia, the couple moved to Sao Paulo, where Salgado attended university, studying economics. In 1964 a coup d’etat brought a military dictatorship to Brazil, and five years later, after friends were being arrested (and tortured), horrified, they moved to Paris, where Salgado earned a PhD in economics while his wife studied architecture and urban planning. As an economist he traveled on World Bank missions to Africa, which prompted him to begin to take photographs.

After 1973 he left his work as an economist to dedicate himself to photography, with the intention, he says, of “representing people and their ideas — stories and reality.”

His first photo report was on the drought afflicting the Sahel. Later he documented the plight of migrants in Europe and covered the revolution in Portugal and the colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique. After working for major photo agencies, including Sygma and Magnum in Paris, he founded his own agency there, Amazonas Images.

By the time he had been covering world conflicts for a quarter century, he quit photography and returned to Brazil, where he dedicated himself to reforestation projects. The result was that 2.5 million trees were planted, reviving the desert, but also demonstrating the possibility of restoring a blighted area.

Since then, his return to his first love, photography, has brought him awards from Spain, Germany, Britain, Sweden and France. This year he was awarded Japan’s Praemium Imperiale and received the World Economic Forum’s prize in Switzerland.

He is now a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and since 1992 an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and since 2016 the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France. His most famous book, a best seller, is Genesis. The couple have two children, Juliano Ribeiro and Rodrigo.

The exhibition sections, all of which feature photos of indigenous people as well as places, are:

  • The Amazon seen from above (flying over the forests)
  • Watering the entire continent (the rivers curving over the flatlands)
  • When it rains in the rainforest
  • Unexpected uplands in the lowlands (mountain views)
  • A source of fear and inspiration (storms)
  • Islands in the stream (life on the river islets)

A contemporary exhibition of his works just opened in London at the National Science Museum.     

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