Neuehouse, New York City
Last Friday night, the Neuehouse hosted a discussion between photographer Sebastião Salgado and former New York Times editor, writer and academic Fred Ritchin. This was not the first occasion that the two of them had spoken together. Their relationship goes back over thirty years to 1980 when Ritchin hired Salgado to photograph the Reagan campaign. It was good timing for Salgado and bad timing for Reagan. Ritchin said that he thought it was a good idea to send Salgado because he did not speak any english, a plus when it came to covering Reagan.
Salgado’s well-timed commission allowed him to be one of the only photographers to capture Reagan’s assassination attempt, and that alone secured him a permanent position in the archives of twentieth century photojournalism. But while many photographers would be happy enough to have that once in a lifetime shot, it was really just the beginning for Salgado, as he attempted to do something that is often discussed but hardly accomplished, and that is to take pictures that have a lasting impact on the world.
No Longer Photography
When I first heard Salgado and Ritchin speak at UC Berkeley in 2004, they discussed the way that Salgado was quick to make his subjects feel comfortable, his background as an economist turned photographer, and how the landscape of photography was changing. It was very much a discussion about photography. But this past Friday night, the tone was different.
After a brief introduction, we watched a multimedia presentation from the Genesis series, accompanied by a musical score. After twenty minutes of biblical landscapes, tribal villages, and possibly the last wildlife wilderness photos across the globe, Salgado took the conversation away from photography and into the philosophy of being human.
Gesturing to the back wall, Salgado said, “If the wall, from end to end, represents the history of Planet Earth, humanity would be less than 1mm at the far end.” We are a new blip on the radar and one that might manage to extinguish ourselves before we grow to 2mm.
Salgado’s perspective on the planet and longevity of the dinosaurs, for example, puts into perspective how new we are to the planet. His aim with Genesis was two fold:
1. RECONNECT. First, he wanted to reconnect with the planet on which he lives. As he said, cities are like spaceships. “Paris, London, Rio, New York, these are not the Earth, they are homes for aliens on Earth. I spent eight months every year, for eight years, sixty four months in total, out away from these places discovering our planet.”
2. EARTH ARCHIVE. Second, the pictures are to serve as a record, reminder, or archive of the Earth before it is fully touched by humans. He firmly believes that the things we call technology are nothing new, nothing profound, and nothing nearly as evolved as the natural systems that have developed over the last few million years. To listen to Salgado, in his heavily accented English, explain these ideas is undeniably charming and something worth seeking out. The Earth could use some charismatic ambassadors, because the “strap yourself to a tree” protest style has not exactly won over universal support.
Steps Beyond the Camera
As the evening went on, I almost forgot I was listening to a photographer. Salgado elaborated on the national park he started with his wife and the 2,500,000 trees they have replanted since its inception. He convinced his publisher, Taschen, to become carbon neutral, and he devoted all of 2014 to talking about the preservation of humanity at global summits on climate change. He is the first to say that the Earth will be fine, it has been here longer than we have, but we are in serious jeopardy of cannibalizing our own existence as a species through a combination of willful ignorance and destruction.
While I don’t consider myself an “environmentalist” per se, I do like to give this example in a language that the industrial titans who extract resources from the planet with reckless abandon will understand.
I believe the way we harvest resources and create collateral damage on the planet is the equivalent of shopping for a Ferrari, smashing out all the windows, then cutting out the leather and wrapping ourselves in it for clothing.
That approach sums up almost everything from shark finning to fracking. For the sake of short term profit, entire systems are breaking and will be unusable to future generations. They might find that Ferrari one day, but only as a burnt out shell after being set on fire because the leather did not keep us warm enough.
After the talk I had the good fortune to finally meet Salgado, shake his hand and snap a picture of a photographer who is redefining how pictures can affect change on the globe. I don’t suspect that any single photograph will cause an about face in global policy. That is not how the change will work. But what I believe we are witnessing here is that photography, like a rushing stream, is slowly reshaping the landscape to hopefully remove the trends of destruction that are only a few hundred years old.
At the head of this stream are figures like Salgado, a former economist turned picture maker. In the end, the photographs are just a tool to demonstrate what he sees as our greater responsibility to observe, understand and honor the world around us.
Exhibition at ICP
Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition “Genesis” is running at the International Center for Photography until January 11th, 2015.
Sebastião Salgado’s Foundation: http://www.institutoterra.org/