Museum and Gallery Guide

Traumatised by human deaths, healed by nature

By Shawn Byron DankerEvents - 29 April 2014 12:00 AM | Updated 4:29 PM

Traumatised by human deaths, healed by nature

At 70, Paris-based Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado would have seen a lot through his lens, but none as devastating as what he witnessed in Rwanda.

It paralysed him mentally, and suffering a breakdown, he stopped taking pictures all together before it killed him.

Escaping the grip of death, Salgado, an economist who started photography work in his 30s, turned back to Mother Nature to get his life back. And with that, he was able to take up his camera again.

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Women in the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy in Brazil. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

His “rebirth” was soon followed by a project with the United Nations – a mega exhibition titled ‘Genesis’, showcasing the unspoilt and purest places on our planet. 

The sprawling exhibit holds 245 black-and-white photos, and made its Asian debut at the National Museum of Singapore last weekend.

The epic photography exhibition, which will be open until 27 July, unflinchingly shows audiences what our world would look like if it were free of the touch of modernity. It serves as a visual reminder of the progression and regression that we have wrought on our planet. 

‘Genesis’ stands today as the seminal work of Salgado, who started on it as a means to heal his body and soul after spending six long years witnessing and documenting the horrors of human displacement.

DEATH WAS EATING HIM UP

Salgado said: "I saw in Rwanda total brutality. I saw deaths of thousands per day. I lost faith in our species."

He was there in 1994 and 1995, his third visit there, and saw the effects of the civil war and the horrors of the genocide.

Salgado regales the crowd about what the scene was like when he took this photograph. Photo: Shawn Danker

He became so affected by the widespread death he had witnessed that he started exhibiting physiological symptoms of his mental trauma.  

"I didn't believe it was possible for us to live any longer and I started to be attacked by my own staphylococcus. I started to have infections everywhere.

“I went to see a friend's doctor in Paris, and told him I was completely sick. He examined me and told me, ‘Sebastiao, you are not sick. What happened is, you saw so much death that you yourself are dying. You must stop or you will be dead.’ So I made the decision to stop photography,” he recalled.

Salgado then decided to return to Brazil with his wife for a change of scenery, and they ended up rehabilitated the ecologically devastated land that he had inherited from his parents.

Waura Indians in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil's Mato Grosso state. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

The couple resurrected the rainforest, complete with its own thriving ecosystem, and by now, two million trees have been planted on that very piece of land.

The Lazarus effect that Salgado worked on his own soil also ended up reinvigorating his passion for life and photography.

He then used this newfound zeal to embark on his most ambitious project to date, resulting in ‘Genesis’.

“I basically worked in social photography till the beginning of ‘Genesis’,” he said. 

“All my life, I just photographed one animal: us. 

“I decided with ‘Genesis’, I wanted to photograph the other animals. For me, it was a new experience. I learned that to photograph animals, it was necessary to respect their dignity, their territory, and in the end, to get their permission to photograph them.

“I then discovered that it was the same for the trees...the landscape, it was necessary to spend the time to know them in order to be capable to take their pictures. This was why I took eight years to do this project. I started ‘Genesis’ in the beginning of 2004 and I finished it in 2011.” 

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Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) on icebergs located between Zavodovski and Visokoi islands. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

UNBRIDLED ENTHUSIASM

Salgado's unbridled enthusiasm over his work is apparent during the press gathering in Singapore. The man tirelessly took reporters on a whirlwind tour of his exhibit, while his wife Leila Salgado smiled adoringly at her husband's energetic antics. 

"All the Antarctic ones," she replied, when asked which picture is her husband's favourite. 

She is right, of course. Salgado looked like a little boy who could not wait to tell his classmates about his Antarctic adventure. He became even more animated around his ‘Right Whale’ photos, where he made whale-fin gestures with his hands (see main pic), regaling reporters about the particular mammal he befriended and photographed. 

THE IMPORTANT PARTS

On whether there is any significance in using black-and-white photos, he said: "I'm not a colour photographer. Black-and-white is an abstraction. If I photograph you in black and white, I will have grey everywhere… the representation of the colours in all these greys.

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in the Valdés Peninsula, Argentina. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

“Doing this abstraction allows me to concentrate on the most important parts of the photograph. When a person comes to this museum to look at these pictures – of course their universe is not in black and white, we see in colour, we live in colour – he or she will instinctively be drawn into the photograph and become a part of the abstraction. I believe this is the power of the black-and-white photograph.” 

Indeed, looking at his photos, it feels like you are right there with him taking in the entire sensual experience of the scene, seeing it through his eyes.

"We have the hope that Singaporeans will come to the show and have an idea of what is pristine on this planet and work together to preserve it, because our life and our comfort depends on it,” he said. 

‘Genesis’ | Date: now until 27 July | Time: 10am-6pm | Venue: Exhibition Gallery 2, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road | Admission is free

Check out the other exhibition by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz also exhibiting in Singapore: ArtScience Museum welcomes Annie Leibovitz

Genesis

Genesis

Date Apr 26, 2014 - Aug 31, 2014

VenueNational Museum of Singapore