Sebastiao Salgado's Genesis

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

image copyrightPhil Coomes/BBC

Sebastiao Salgado never does things by half and his latest project, Genesis, which has its world premiere at the Natural History Museum in London this week, is photography on an epic scale. It comprises more than 200 prints selected from eight years' work, shot in 32 countries.

The pictures are unmistakably Salgado's, shimmering prints that seem to leap out of the gallery walls. Each one engages and entices you to look closer, to take your time and enjoy the subject as well as the tonality.

The project's title, Genesis, is about Salgado attempting to capture the planet as it once was, unspoilt landscapes, wildlife and remote communities that live as their ancestors did.

You could argue that these pictures present a world that does not really exist, a fairy tale, though you could also argue that most photographs are constructed to some degree or another, and stand or fall on the intention behind the work.

"It is about the unspoiled planet, the most pristine parts, and a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature - the way we used to be," says Salgado. "I wanted to present places that were untouched and remain so to this day."

image copyrightPhil Coomes/BBC

His previous two major long-term projects, Workers and Migrations, both centre on people and their struggle against both the land in which they live and their economic situation. This work does not; it is very much a celebration of what is left, and what once was, and perhaps what could be. "I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I am just a photographer. I wanted to show how some people are living in equilibrium with the planet, as we did thousands of years ago," says Salgado.

And indeed he does that, though there is a danger that the pictures could become little more than a spectacle for our visual delight.

"I don't want to provoke debate," says Salgado. "I just want people to feel closer to our planet. We are all so out of touch. We don't feel part of the planet any more, so we must turn back the clock to come closer to nature. We need to recover our instincts, to learn more about nature."

Salgado is aware of his responsibilities as a photographer and also aware he can use his pictures to make a difference. With his wife Leila he set up an environmental organisation, Instituto Terra, in Brazil in the 1990s. This works on the restoration of a part of the Atlantic Forest and has helped establish a nature reserve.

"We started to replant the rainforest and today we have a little bit more than two million trees with more than 300 native species. And now you see an incredible amount of birds come back to this forest," he says.

image copyrightPhil Coomes/BBC

His interest in nature stems from watching the destruction of the rainforests of his childhood in Brazil, but rather than focus on destruction he offers a view of a seemingly idyllic lifestyle and landscape. "The idea came to me that we should show the incredible beauty of nature, not just the destruction that is going on, but also to inspire people to want to preserve the planet.

"In a sense, we humans are the biggest 'predator' of the planet. We are the ones consuming the resources and products it provides. We only care about ourselves, our comfort and our needs.

"We can't just criticise the companies that pollute and destroy nature, because we are the ones consuming their products and justifying their activities - and through the stock market we are, in the last instance, the 'owners' of these same companies."

image copyrightSebastiao Salgado / Amazonas Images / nbpictures
image captionThe Anavilhanas, the name given to around 350 forested islands in Brazil's Rio Negro, form the world's largest inland archipelago. Covering 1,000 sq km of Amazonia, they start 80km north-west of Manaus and stretch some 400km up the Rio Negro as far as Barcelos. Brazil, 2009.
image copyrightSebastiao Salgado / Amazonas Images / nbpictures
image captionSteeple Jason Island is home to more than 500,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophris), the largest colony of albatrosses in the world. Falkland Islands, 2009.