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Up Close With Sebastiao Salgado, Brazil's Legendary Photographer-Activist

Alto Xingu Indians in Central Brazil
Alto Xingu Indians in Central Brazil
Fernanda Ezabella

Sebastião Salgado's blue eyes have seen a bit of everything in this world – and this might not even be an exaggeration.

For the past eight years in particular, the 69-year-old Brazilian photographer has traveled to more than 30 isolated regions of the world, collecting images of dozens of remote tribes, endangered animals and unusual landscapes.

The Genesis project is a singular photographic journey that began in 2004 and ended last year, at a cost of one million euros a year. The result will be shown in magazines, books, a documentary by Wim Wenders and a series of exhibitions around the world, each displaying some 250 black-and-white photos.

The first exhibition will open in London on April 11, with former Brazilian President Lula – Salgado’s longtime friend – as special guest.

“We want to create a little movement around these photos to provoke a debate on what we need to preserve,” he says. Salgado defends environmental causes through his organization, Instituto Terra. 
Even after traveling to so many exotic places, Salgado, now living in Paris, still take vacations in Brazil. Here are excerpts from a conversation Salgado had with Folha, with new details about his travels, photographic techniques and new environmental projects.

Coldest trip

I visited the Nenets, in the Yamal peninsula, in northern Siberia, Russia. They are a nomadic tribe who raise reindeer in extreme Arctic conditions. When I went there it was spring and weather ranged between -35ºC and -45ºC. I didn't wash myself for 45 days. They don't take baths because there is no water. The only way to get water is to break off a piece of ice and warm it in a pot. You pee outdoors – pull down your pants in this cold and your testicles shrink to the size of cashew nuts he laughs. You get used to it.

Fur coat

My clothes were only adapted for about three to four hours outside, but we spent 12 hours outdoors. They dismantled their homes and had nowhere to stay. On the second day, I was dying of cold. Then they made me a coat and I wasn’t cold anymore.

Frozen equipment

I used a Canon, an EOS1 Mark III, a very powerful machine. The problem was the batteries. In the Siberian temperatures, they quickly lost power. On average, I take 2,500 shots per battery, but this time I could only take 300-400 photos before the battery stopped working. I would put it inside my clothes, my assistant would give me another one, I would take 300 more pictures and, when that battery ran out energy, I would take out the other one and it would work again.

Going digital for the first time

I started Genesis with film and changed to digital. The airport X-Ray scanners degrade the quality of film, and so I decided to change to digital and was quite surprised. Quality was better than the one I had with negatives in medium format. I turned off the screen on the back of the camera, and used my camera as I have always done. When I came back to Paris, I printed contact sheets and edited the photos using a magnifying glass, because I don't know how to do it in the computer.

Prevention

In northern Ethiopia, we walked 800 kilometers through the mountains. I organized an expedition with 18 donkeys. There was an Ethiopian marathon runner that carried my most fragile equipment. I had a satellite phone and, in case of an accident, we had Air Force helicopters on standby. Nothing bad happened. In eight years, I just had small accidents, malaria and various diseases.

Stone Ages

I met tribes that are still living in the Stone Ages, with working tools such as stone hammers. There were clans of about 10 people living in treetops. They had already seen white people before. They looked towards the direction I had come from and the chief asked me whether I was part of the while people clan that usually came from that direction. Because, for them, the world is all made of clans.

Brazilian arrows

I met the Zo'e tribe, in Brazil, who were first discovered 15 years ago and live in a state of total purity. You see the guy working with an arrow. He warms it, put some weight on it, a straight feather if he wants a quicker arrow, a rounder one to have it slower. It is the same science as for rockets. And he's got the same problem as in Cape Canaveral, to recover his rockets. If his ballistic calculations are wrong, he loses his arrow. He takes only 10 arrows with him when he goes hunting, no more than that.

Documentary

My son Juliano traveled with me in five of these trips, and also in Brazil and Siberia. He is now editing the documentary, which is called Shade and Light, in Berlin with Wim Wenders.

Activist or photographer?

Photography is my life. When I am taking photos, I am in a deep trance. When I have my camera and am travelling with the Nenets, it's my life, morning to night. I have taken incredible photos, but my life is also the environment and Instituto Terra.

Water sources

We invented a technology for recovering water sources, we offered it to Brazilian President Dilma and she adopted it. We want to recover all the sources along Doce River, the largest river in southwest Brazil. It is 900 kilometers, bigger than the whole Portugal. We can do it in 35 years. We will save a river and plant over 100 million trees. This will be the pilot of a project than can be used in all Brazilian rivers.

The exhibition Genesis will be shown at the following venues:

2013

  • • The Natural History Museum, London, UK, April 9 through September 8, 2013
  • • Jardim Botanico, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil, May through August 2013
  • • Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy, May 9 through September 3, 2013
  • • The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, May 1st through August 25, 2013
  • • La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris, France, September 25, 2013 through January 5, 2014
  • • SESC Belenzinho, São Paulo, SP, Brazil, September through November 2013
  • • Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, September 20, 2013 through January 12, 2014

2014

  • • The International Center for Photography (ICP), New York, USA, May 16 through September 7, 2014
  • • Gazômetro, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, April 22 through June 29, 2014
  • • The National Museum of Singapore, April through July 2014
  • • Fotografiska – the Swedish Museum of Photography, Stockholm, Sweden, Summer 2014 (end May/beginning June – end September)
  • • Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany (dates to precise)

2015

  • • FOTON, Montréal, Canada, June through September 2015

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, USA (in discussions)

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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