Sebastião Salgado: the Master of Masters

Known as a social photographer or photojournalist, Sebastião Salgador is it much more. His legacy extends beyond photography stirring consciences and reversing afforestation.

He is, without a doubt, a great figure of photography whose images have gone around the world leaving us breathless, both for their beauty and for their rawness.

Today we are going to meet this fantastic photographer to understand his work a little better and discover everything he is capable of teaching us.

Sebastião Salgado: biography

Sebastian Salgadowas born on February 8, 1944 in Aimorés, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and grew up, along with her seven sisters, among vast Atlantic jungles.

According to his father, he was a bohemian and traveling boy, just like his grandfather had been, and he had little interest in studies.

Forced by his father, who called him Tião, he began to study Law, however, he abandoned these studies for Economics, a career he studied at the University of São Paulo and the University of Venderbit (USA) and which, in some way, , later marked his work as a photographer.

He had left the farm where he grew up at the age of 15 to study in Vitoria. There he met Lélia Deluiz Wanick, a music student with whom he fell in love and with whom he moved to São Paulo because he obtained a scholarship. There they got married.

Sebastião Salgado and Lélia Deluiz Wanick

Fleeing from the threat that the dictatorship of their country exerted on their freedom and security due to their participation in left-wing movements, the Salgados moved to Paris, where he obtained a doctorate from the National School of Economic Statistics.

Meanwhile, Lélia was studying architecture. To photograph her work, he bought a camera, a gesture that would mark their lives forever, although they still did not know it.

Sebastião started working in the administration of the ICO (International Coffee Organization) so they moved to London. Hoping to make a career at the World Bank, he made several trips to Africa to study development projects. From these trips to which he took Lélia’s camera, he returned loaded with photographs that satisfied him much more than the economic reports that he made.

This fact caused the couple to make a brave decision, Sebastião had to abandon his career as an economist and start from scratch as a photographer.

Thus, they returned to Paris where they invested everything in photographic equipment. For a time he did different types of work, from weddings to portraits, until discovering that his true vocation lay elsewhere.

Lélia with her son Juliano in her arms

In 1974, in Paris, their first son, Juliano, was born. Lèlia devoted herself to taking care of her son and supporting her husband’s work. She spread it among newspapers, magazines and agencies. Once some of these publications had an outstanding relevance, they conceived her first great photographic project: Other Americas, which took Sebastião all over South America. When he returned from his trips, together with Lélia, he did the editing work.

Lelia and Rodrigo Salgado

In 1979 her second son, Rodrigo, was born and some time later, Lélia returned with her little ones to Brazil for the first time after her exile. The dictatorship was over.

Salgado joined them shortly after and was able to reunite with his entire family after so many years away from his native country.

Following his traveling spirit, he wanted to travel around the country and immersed himself for six months in the northeast of Brazil, a place that he did not know but with which he had always dreamed.

Upon his return, he was shocked to find that the place where he had grown up in his childhood had nothing to do with what he had left years ago.

Even so, everything he experienced on his last trips had marked him so much that he felt the need to leave again, his work as a photographer had acquired a new meaning and his family, once again, supported him.

Then came his collaboration with Doctors Without Borders in the Sahel. After the publication of Other Americas Y Sahel, the end of the road, his career as a photographer took hold and his name spread to the rest of the world, without turning back. One of the great photographers of the century was born.

In his career as a photographer he began working for the agency Sygma, in 1974, a year later he joined Gamma, based in Paris for. In 1979 he joined Magnum Photos and in 1994 he left the famous agency to create his own with his wife: Amazonas Images in Paris and thus represent his work.

After several years touring the most inhospitable corners of the planet and witnessing the fiercest human dramas, collected in various works (for example Exodus), he returned to his farm dejected.

The desolation of the land where she had grown up would have ended up sinking any other person, but the idea that Lélia had made everything change and she regained hope.

Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lélia at the Terra Institute

They decided to bring the trees back to the farm, to end deforestation. In this way the Terra Institute was born; the Salgado couple became the strongest advocates of reforestation on planet Earth; and it arose Genesisthe photographic project that brought Salgado back to his origins and for which he traveled to some 32 countries photographing (still) virgin places whose beauty reminds us how fragile our planet is and what we can lose if we do nothing to remedy it.

With this latest project, Salgado has not only stirred consciences and crossed the limits of the natural beauty of the Earth, he has also shown that he is not only a photojournalist or documentary filmmaker, but that his work as a landscape photographer, so different from what he used to photograph, is up there with Ansel Adams himself.

“More than ever, I feel like there is only one human race. Beyond the differences of color, language, culture and possibilities, the feelings and reactions of each individual are identical.

Sebastian Salgado

I recommend you watch the documentary. The salt of the earth if you want to know a little more about the life and work of Salgado.

Salgado Awards

  • 1982: W. Eugene Smith Grant Award
  • 1985: Leica Oscar Barnack Award
  • 1989: Hasselblad Foundation International Award
  • 1992: Leica Oscar Barnack Award
  • 1992: Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1993: Centenary Medal of the Royal Photographic Society (of the United Kingdom)
  • 1993: Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) of the Royal Photographic Society (UK)
  • 1994: Grand National Prize for Photography (Ministry of Culture, France)
  • 1998: Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts (Spain)
  • 2003: International Award of the Photographic Society of Japan
  • 2007: Audience Award M2 / M2 in PhotoEspaña
  • 2019: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
  • 2021: World Economic Forum Crystal Award
  • 2021: Praemium Imperiale from Japan

Salgado’s work

Sebastião Salgado’s images are not taken in a hurry, nor improvised. He needs his time to build both the story of an image and the discourse of a series, which can take him several years. His work is cooked slowly, without haste, with knowledge and dedication.

The work of this master of photography cannot be labeled with just two or three words, such as photojournalist or social photographer. It is so vast and with such an intense discourse that those labels fall far short.

In her work there are economic, human, social, anthropological overtones, of denunciation, of pain and above all, and incredibly, of beauty and art where one could never imagine that someone was capable of capturing it.

And that is one of his gifts. And as much as it has been criticized for that, I don’t think that pain and beauty are at odds, much less in art.

And it is that he has criticized him for showing misery in a beautiful way, as if in some way he downplayed importance or credibility. My humble opinion (who am I to question someone like Susan Sontag), is that if there is a photographer who has managed to bring us face to face with reality and put the pain in our guts, that has been Salgado.

I wonder if his images were not of such beauty, would they have transcended as they have? If Salgado’s work were not so masterful, do you think he would have stood the test of time and moved so many people? I’m afraid not. And you only have to delve a little into his life to understand that in his work there is a motivation that goes far beyond economic benefit.

Leaving aside the controversy, and focusing on Salgado’s work, we must say that he manages to make the viewer feel inside the image.

He masterfully composes with the elements he finds in the scene, recreates the atmosphere like no other and has a light management that leaves you breathless. His technique is indisputable, his style unmistakable and his ability to arouse emotions worthy of admiration.

And speaking of emotions, his work goes as in the scale of tones, from white to black. She is capable of provoking you from the most immense pain with an image of human barbarism to the most absolute happiness with another scene of the wonders of our geography.

It has captured within our planet Earth both heaven and hell. With Salgado there are no half measures, neither in the speech, nor in the image. All or nothing. As he has done with the Terra Institute, take it from nothing to everything.

Salgado’s work in color and black and white

Sebastião Salgado’s work is mainly in black and whitehas made reports in color, but went so far as to affirm that he would not photograph in color again.

About his black and white photos, when asked in an interview “How do you photograph nature in black and white when it’s not?” answered that “Nothing is black and white. But it is a way of getting out of reality through abstraction. The fabulous thing about black and white, its power, is that we all have a tendency to replenish colors. In the infinite ranges of gray there is a representation of all colors.»

Salgado’s most important works

Some of the Salgado’s most important photographic projects or better known are:

  • Other Americas, the fruit of 8 years of numerous trips between the late 1970s and early 1980s in Latin America, during which he made a series of photographs on the continent and the durability of peasant and indigenous cultures. The book that he published on this project together with his wife immediately gained public recognition and brought him several awards.
  • The gold mines, which he collects in his book Gold. When Salgado photographed Serra Pelada the gold rush was in full swing. Today, the mines are closed, but what happened there went around the world thanks to this project.
  • exodus, six years documenting the history of human migration. Its protagonists: exiles, emigrants and refugees from 35 countries.
  • Workers…