On "Genesis": An interview with Lélia Wanick Salgado
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On "Genesis": An interview with Lélia Wanick Salgado

You may be familiar with the name Sebastião Salgado.

Salgado, a Brazilian documentary photographer and photojournalist, is widely renowned for his powerful black-and-white portraits of people around the world, especially those living in desperate situations. Those images — of mine workers, migrants, musicians — have won Salgado a number of awards and honors, including the World Press Photo Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.

You are probably less familiar, though, with the name Lélia Wanick Salgado, despite the fact that she is instrumental to the photographer’s success.

Wanick Salgado is Sebastião’s wife and creative partner. She is also the curator of the current series of Salgado’s work, “Genesis,” which is described by the Salgados as their “attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition, areas where landscapes and wildlife are still unspoiled, places where human communities continue to live according to their ancient culture and traditions.”

The project, more than 10 years in the making, is, according to the couple, “about seeing and marveling, about understanding the necessity for the protection of all this; and… inspiring action for its preservation.”

“Genesis,” which has been making its way around the museums of the world since 2013, opened at New York City’s International Center of Photography last week. Walnick Salgado sat down with us to talk about the project, as well as Brazilian politics and the Salgados’ efforts to restore a devastated piece of land in their home country.

Latin Correspondent: What is the creative process between yourself and Sebastião?

Lélia Wanick Salgado: Well, that answer has two parts since we are a couple and we work together. Things work out very well between us because we both have two sides [but] our creative processes are quite distinct. I am not a photographer. And [Sebastião] has no idea how to put together exhibits. So what he knows, I don’t know, and what I know, he doesn’t know. There is no competition [between us].

LC: When we’re looking at Sebastião’s work, is it possible for us to see your influence?

LWS: Of course. We conceptualize projects together. And our journey together has been a very close one, a very special one, so yes, we influence each other.

LC: In English, there’s a saying, “Behind every successful man, there’s a woman.”

LWS: No. I don’t agree with that. She’s not behind him. She’s by his side. Next to him. We have to be very clear about that.

LC: It’s interesting that you say that, particularly in the current context of Brazilian politics. Given Brazil’s history of military dictatorships, it’s significant that Brazil has a female president and that she is being challenged in the current electoral race by another woman, Marina Silva.

LWS: Yes. She’s not behind [any man]. She’s in front… in front of everyone. The person at the front of any country is the president. But let’s not forget that there are many, many women who are behind.

Sebastião Salgado

The Salgados at the “Genesis” exhibit in New York. Photo: Francisco Collazo

LC: Sebastião has focused his lens on a variety of subjects during his career as a documentary photographer and photojournalist: migration, labor, human rights. Has the theme of this current show, which is about the environment, been directly influenced by the topics of those earlier series?

LWS: Absolutely. All of these things are related. The environment is the backdrop against which all of these other issues play out. It’s such an enormous issue and touches so many other things: water, air, contamination, health.

But part of the impetus for this series came from something very personal. We inherited a parcel of land from Sebastião’s parents, and we looked at that land and thought, “What can we do with this?” It’s land that’s so degraded, so devastated, nothing could be done with it. It had been used for cattle grazing, which just destroyed it completely. When Sebastião was a child, that land was about 70 percent intact. When we inherited it… nothing. Less than 3 percent of the land was still forested. It’s incredible.

It was looking at that that gave me an idea, the most magnificent idea I’ve ever had: We should plant a forest here.

Look, the impoverishment of land makes people poor. When the land is poor, people will be poor, too. I thought, “What if we give life back to this land?” And so that’s what we’re working on now. We have two million trees. And it’s this project that gave rise to the “Genesis” series of photos.

LC: How has photography influenced your own life?

LWS: I don’t know, really, but the fact that photography is our life, is our profession, it has certainly made us see certain realities of the world: violence, hunger, migration, the flight of rural people to cities… so many things.

LC: Can you tell us anything about upcoming projects?

LWS: Well, I hope there are upcoming projects [laughing]; you know, we’re old now, even though we still climb mountains– even volcanoes! For many years, Sebastião has been photographing coffee farms and coffee farmers and one of the projects we’re working on is the publication of a book of these farms. He has photographed in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia…. And it will have a companion exhibit in Italy. And, of course, this topic is tied to the environment, too.

LC: What do you think Sebastião’s legacy will be when he passes?

LWS: Photography as a way of seeing, a way of thinking. But neither of us is the least bit preoccupied with what our legacy will be.

“Genesis” is on exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York City through January 11, 2015.

It opened at The Natural History Museum of London in 2013 and has traveled to Canada, Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, France, Spain, Sweden and Singapore. Later this year, it will open in Korea, and 2015 and 2016 venues include museums in Portugal, Germany and China, among others. More information about dates and locations can be found here.