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Just Imagine…A Thousand Words

Rio de Janeiro – O fotógrafo e ambientalista Sebastião Salgado, fundador do Instituto Terra, fala sobre a homenagem do 16º Prêmio Personalidade da Câmara de Comércio França-Brasil do Rio de Janeiro (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

Sebastião Salgado was born in 1944 in Brazil. He earned a PhD in Economics from the University of Paris and started his professional career as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. This work took him to Africa, where he became increasingly interested in photography to capture his experiences.

In 1973, Sebastião decided to abandon his career as an economist and become a photographer. He got jobs on news assignments. Eventually he began to focus on the social purpose of his photography. He would travel to places around the world to photograph people, habitats, and wildlife. Much of his work focuses on documenting the situation of workers in less developed countries that are bearing the brunt of extractive industries. You can see some of his images here and here.

When Sebastião was 69 years of age, his father gave him the family’s cattle ranch in eastern Brazil. He was facing a dilemma. He had a nomadic lifestyle, and now he was being asked to establish permanence in his childhood home.

What Sebastião found when he returned to his family’s ranch was nothing like what he remembered as a child. The property, which at one time was 50% forest, had been deforested. Soil erosion and cattle ranching had created a dead land.

Sebastião embarked on a plan of reforestation. He began to plant trees to reestablish the original property’s condition. Eventually over two million trees were planted. Wildlife returned and the property is now designated as a nature conserve, Instituto Terra.

The restoration of his childhood home gave him the idea of traveling to places that were still unspoiled by human industry. He hoped that his photographs would help keep those places in their unspoiled condition. As he likes to cite, “45% of our planet is still what it was at the beginning.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Sebastião, you might be drawn to watch The Salt of the Earth, a documentary film about his work.

Just imagine the power of images to shape how we think about the world and about the role we humans play in it. Consider images like: a stream of overloaded miners climbing wooden ladders out of a gold mine, a single man perched precariously atop one of those ladders, a pair of migrant women, a refugee camp, or a seal, surrounded by a colony of penguins, glancing at the camera. How might Sebastião’s images of unspoiled nature move us to think about preserving what has been given to us for future generations? Might his images of the harsh conditions for much of humanity move us to consider how we might create a more humane world for all? Let’s hope so. A thousand words can make a difference. What about a thousand images?

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“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this.” — Sebastião Salgado

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.