Looking For Inspiration: Sebastiao Salgado

Looking For Inspiration: Sebastiao Salgado


Whenever I’m looking for a little inspiration I don’t have to go far because inspiration is all around me in the form of my extensive library of photography books I’ve been cultivating for as long as I’ve been shooting.

This day, I picked up one of my many books by Sebastiao Salgado, Genesis– the third long-term series on global issues with stunning, powerful images that can’t help but raise awareness about the environment, climate change and our future.

From Genesis by Sebastiao Salgado

It was a couple of years ago when I went to see the great Salgado speak at a talk coinciding with his Genesis Exhibition at the International Center of Photography here in New York.

It was a packed house and Mr. Salgado did not disappoint. He showed two slideshows with music; one on his lifetime of work leading up to the Genesis slideshow which also ran for about 12 minutes.

The music endowed the images with even greater power, but make no mistake, Salgado’s exquisite black and white work is powerful and moving. While watching I kept thinking of adjectives to describe the photographs: perfection, content, moment, epic.

I scratched a few notes during the slide presentation that I wanted to share with you about the man and his process– so here they are paraphrased in bullet form.

  • I just wanted to see. Photography is a personal interpretation.
  • I didn’t take pictures, I received them as a gift.
  • I went to see the planet. I saw incredible things.  It’s an incredible priviledge.
  • People live in tradition.  We are all exactly the same…our instinct, spirituality makes us survive and is the key to our future, not technology.
  • A tree is an authority; 2000 years old.
  • Our body is 90 per cent water—we come to water, we come to our essence.
  • Salgado does not consider himself an activist photographer nor does he like labels like photojournalist or anthropologist. He said he’s not trying to “convince anyone”. Photography is just my way of life.
  • My pictures are part of a movement…I don’t have the pretension that I’m a leader of something”.
  • Individually, I don’t think they cause change. After 40 years of work he doesn’t think his work has changed; but he has.
  • He said that being a photographer is much more than being an artist. With the label “artist” you are closed in a box- you are dead.  “Being a photographer is so much more than being an artist”.
  • His slide shows had no verticals. He wanted the photos to blend together. They stayed on screen for 7 or 8 seconds…different projects connected by content and aesthetics.
  • He described the necessity of being in control…
  • For the first half of the Genesis project he shot film but airport x-rays were a big problem and he once lost 52 rolls to X-ray damage. His film choices dwindled so he and his team developed a negative from digital archive so he can shoot digital while maintaining his workflow process of editing through contact sheets and work prints. They then make traditional silver halide prints from an internegative created from the digital file. More about that process here.

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There is so much to learn from studying the masters. Looking at Salgado’s work is a masterclass in black and white photography, composition and design, capturing the dignity of living things and the story-telling power of images when they connect together with a common theme.

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