In the lush Amazon, a photographer hopes to document life before it’s too late

Updated November 3, 2022 2:45 PM ET

Ed. Note: This story includes photos that show nudity.

When photographer Sebastião Salgado visits tribes in the Amazon, he says the people he meets tend not to be interested in his cameras or his satellite phone: “They were very interested in my knife, because that my knife has a use for them,” he said. .

Originally from Brazil, Salgado has made more than 58 trips to the Amazon. His photos depict lush tropical trees, dramatic clouds, the winding river, as well as the biodiversity of the jungle. The 78-year-old photographer says he flew with the Brazilian army over some of the most inaccessible areas to capture them with his camera.

His new photo exhibition, Amazon, is on view in Los Angeles at the California Science Center. Two large gallery spaces are filled with over 200 large-scale black-and-white images that look almost backlit. Salgado says he photographed them, as he always does, using natural light. “I don’t know how to use artificial lights,” he says.

The images are accompanied by an Amazonian soundscape of birds, monkeys, insects, frogs and human voices, all mixed with music composed for the exhibition by French musician Jean-Michel Jarre.

“It’s a beautiful exhibit. The images are enchanting,” said Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center.

“You learn a lot about the forest, unexpected things about the Amazon. The mountains, the flying rivers,” says Rudolph. “The Amazon is a unique system in which it creates its own rain. Trees take their roots up to 60 meters deep, get water from the system and that water evaporates. At the end of the day, you get these huge clouds and huge rains.”

In some photos you can see these rain clouds above the tree canopy, huge waterfalls and misty peaks.

“The Amazon is paradise,” says Salgado. “The light is amazing, the clouds amazing, the people amazing.”

Salgado lives in Paris and has traveled to over 130 countries, capturing images of genocide, famine, war and natural disasters. But he always returns to Brazil, where he grew up in another tropical forest, along the Atlantic.

For years he and his wife Lelia worked to restore part of the Atlantic Forest. And they created Instituto Terra, a nature reserve and institute for reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

Salgado lived with some of the tribes protected by the National Indian Foundation of Brazil. “These Indians in the forest, they are integrated with the water, the ground, the forest, the animals,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be there with them.”

Salgado says they often arrived surrounded by birds and other animals, a large family rich in biodiversity. He says he slept in hammocks next to them and spoke through interpreters.

“Once a guy asked me, Sebastião, give me your knife when you leave.” I said, “I can’t give it to you because I can’t corrupt your culture. It’s forbidden.” He said, “OK, but your knife is so important. When you’re getting ready to fly in this little plane, just throw your knife over the forest. I know this forest like the lines of my hand. I can find your knife inside the forest.’ “

Salgado didn’t leave his knife behind, but he set up temporary outdoor studios, draping tall black backdrops from the trees. He says he did it to highlight the people and distinguish them from the exuberant forest. He produced many portraits of women and men wearing elaborate headdresses and makeup, children playing with sloths, families sleeping in hammocks and paddling canoes down the river.

Salgado says his Amazon photo exhibition is linked to indigenous and environmental movements in Brazil. It includes videos of tribal leaders talking about the destruction of the rainforest.

“They know they are in danger of disappearing, that the Bolsonaro government is destroying the forest at very high speed,” Salgado explains. “They are desperate to protect the earth, and they are using this show to talk about this issue.”

Like them, Salgado accuses the outgoing Brazilian government of further endangering and eroding the Amazon. “They are real bandits,” he said. “What they are doing, not only in the Amazon but elsewhere in Brazil, is a disaster.”

The photographer longed for a new president, and just days ago Brazilians elected leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Salgado also says he hopes that in 50 years his exhibition Amazon is not the documentation of a lost forest, a lost indigenous people or a lost world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcription

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado has been documenting the Amazon in his native Brazil for decades. His new exhibit of rainforest photos is now on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco reports on the North American premiere.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In two large gallery spaces, you hear a soundscape of the Amazon rainforest – birds, monkeys, insects, frogs and people’s voices. The sound showcases Sebastiao Salgado’s photos – over 200 large-scale black-and-white images that seem almost backlit.

You use all the natural light.

SEBASTIAO SALGADO: Only natural light – I don’t know how to use artificial light.

DEL BARCO: He captured lush tropical trees, dramatic clouds, the winding river, as well as the biodiversity of the jungle.

JEFFREY RUDOLPH: It’s a great show. The images are enchanting.

DEL BARCO: Jeffrey Rudolph is the president and CEO of the California Science Center, which hosts the “Amazonia” exhibit.

RUDOLPH: You learn a lot about the forest, unexpected things about the Amazon, the mountains of the Amazon, the rivers that fly. The Amazon is a unique system in which it creates its own rain.

DEL BARCO: In some photos you can see huge rain clouds, huge waterfalls and misty peaks. Salgado says he flew with the Brazilian military over some of the most inaccessible areas to capture them with his camera.

SALGADO: The Amazon is like paradise. The light is amazing. The clouds are amazing. People – amazing.

DEL BARCO: The 78-year-old photographer lives in Paris and has traveled to over 130 countries capturing images of genocide, famine, war and natural disasters. But he always came back to Brazil, where he grew up in another rainforest along the Atlantic. For years he and his wife, Lelia, worked to restore a portion of the Atlantic Forest that had been damaged. They also created a nature reserve and an institute for reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

Salgado made more than 58 trips to the Amazon, where he lived with some of the hundreds of tribes protected by the National Indian Foundation of Brazil.

SALGADO: You saw some in the forest. They are integrated with water, soil, forest, animals.

DEL BARCO: Salgado says they often arrived surrounded by birds and other animals. He says he slept in hammocks next to them and spoke through interpreters.

SALGADO: They were never interested in my cameras, in my satellite phone. Of no interest. They were very interested in my knife because my knife has a use for them. Once a guy asked, Sebastian, give me your knife when you leave.

DEL BARCO: Salgado set up an outdoor studio, draping large black backdrops to shoot portraits. For example, women wearing elaborate headdresses and face paints stare at his camera. Salgado says his “Amazonia” exhibit is linked to indigenous and environmental movements in Brazil. It includes videos of tribal leaders talking about the destruction of the rainforest.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (non-English language spoken).

SALGADO: They know that they are in danger of disappearing, that the government of Brazil – the Bolsonaro government – ​​is destroying the forests at very high speed, and they are desperate to protect the land. And they use this show to talk about this problem.

DEL BARCO: Like them, Salgado accuses the outgoing Brazilian government of further endangering and eroding the Amazon.

SALGADO: They are real bandits. What they are doing not only in the Amazon, but elsewhere in Brazil, is a disaster.

DEL BARCO: The photographer longed for a new president, and just days ago Brazilians elected leftist leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Salgado also says he hopes that in 50 years his “Amazonia” exhibit will not be a documentation of a lost forest, a lost indigenous people, a lost world.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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