By Huck Fairman
In this time of stress, environmental and political, TED Talks offers an inspirational, personal story in the form of a talk delivered by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Beginning with his personal history growing up in rural Brazil, he recounts how he first studied economics before turning to photography.
Born in 1944, he grew up on a farm inland and north of Rio di Janeiro. The farm was originally 50% forest and was the home to 35 families. In that time, the farmers consumed pretty much all that they grew, except for cattle which members would herd once a year, on a 45-day cattle drive to market.
Sebastiao left the farm when he was 15 to get a better education. He followed that up by earning a master’s in economics in Sao Paulo and then a PhD in economics in Paris. During those years, he became an activist, and he met the woman who became his best friend, his collaborator, and his wife, Lelia Wanick Salgado.
After earning his PhD, he worked for an investment bank that partnered with the World Bank on development projects. He traveled widely.
But then suddenly photography “invaded” his life. It became his focus and his passion. And, as the TED Talks presentation reveals, he took numerous, strikingly beautiful and moving photos of people, their social plights, animals, and landscapes, which, taken all together, have no equal in the world of photography. A number were displayed at shows and collected into books. “Migrations” is the title of one of the most notable.
While photographing in Rwanda during a period of strife, Salgado seemed to contract some incapacitating disease. He consulted a doctor in Paris, who determined that he was not sick
but rather, having seen so much death in Rwanda, his emotional reaction had shut his body down.
Sebastiao and Lelia decided to return to the family farm in Brazil. There, they were surprised by his parents giving the farm to him – his siblings were all sisters and not interested in farming.
But the farm at this time had been stripped of trees for the purpose of food cultivation. Only half of a percent of the former tree covering remained. This had allowed the topsoil to be washed away. Sebastiao saw that the land needed to be reforested. He consulted with a friend who understood land preservation. What was needed was the replanting of hundreds of thousands of trees in an effort to return the ecosystem to what it had been.
This was done. The trees – several million – came back. Sebastiao and Lelia decided to give the land to the people as a nation park, which they called Instituto Terra.
He also returned to photography, and focused on recording both people and animals, or as he terms it, us. But now he became starkly aware of how much the world needs its trees, to absorb our ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions and produce needed oxygen. From the 110 groups of original peoples in the Amazon to cities and countries around the world, we all need trees, in order to survive.
The Salgados urge that we all must fight hard to preserve the natural world on which we depend. In Brazil, much of its forests have been destroyed. In California, the redwoods are also threatened with extinction. Forests in Spain and India have been all but eliminated.
Thus, for both the really moving beauty, as captured in his photographs, and the warning to save and re-establish our trees, view this TED Talk. It is striking, and essential.