Amazônia: Sebastião Salgado’s Photo Essay Nine Years in the Making

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado is widely regarded as one of the great photographers on the planet today. He has traveled to over 120 countries, capturing powerful social documentary images that have appeared in exhibitions and publications around the globe.

Salgado has spent years working on a project titled Amazônia. PetaPixel spoke with him to learn more about his life, career, and this latest epic photo essay.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Phil Mistry: How did the book Amazônia come about?

Sebastião Salgado: It’s about the work I’ve been doing for many years. I worked in Amazônia in the 80s and 90s, at the beginning of 2000, and from 2013 to 2019. We decided to publish the book and a big show in Paris [last year] to see if we can contribute to this debate about the destruction of the Amazon biome.

This is about the huge impact of negatives that we are doing on the Amazon tribes, and I hope this book can contribute [positively]. I give a conscience to the people that the Amazon and beyond must be protected.

How many years did you spend photographing Amazônia?

The last seven years, from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2018 but I have gone on many trips before. Inside this book, we have pictures from 1998 until 2019. I believe that if I put it all together, I have about eight or nine years of photography in Amazônia. I made about 48 trips.

On an average trip, how many days or weeks would you stay in the Amazon?

Well, most typically, the trips in Amazônia were between one month and three months. It depended, you see, with these tribes, you know when you go, but you have no idea when you come out. The appointment is unlike here in our society, where things are clear.

Sometimes when you arrive, the majority of the tribe may not be there. They may be out hunting or fishing. Sometimes you [plan to] stay for one month and when you are prepared to come out, something very important happens — we have a huge ceremony.

Access is sometimes very difficult. [It takes] eight to nine days to arrive [to their location.] And no exception, it’s a [remote] tribe, so you are obliged to do a quarantine, or you [risk] transmitting diseases. The Indian health [authorities] vaccinate you with everything, and you must quarantine for 12 days before staying with the tribe. That means a trip there usually is quite long.

The book is called Amazônia, and to most people, that means the Amazon rainforest. What does it mean to you specifically?

Look well; we have a small [circumflex] over the “o” in Amazônia. The only people that write Amazon like this are the Brazilians. I work only in Brazilian Amazônia.

We have nine Amazonian countries, but about 65 percent of Amazônia is in Brazil, and it’s quite representative of the Amazon Forest. That means when I put this title in Portuguese, that means it’s a Brazilian Amazon.You photographed the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil in the 1980s, so you’re returning to Amazônia after 40 years. What prompted that decision in 2013 to revisit Amazônia?

You see Serra Pelada gold mine is in Amazônia. I worked there in 1986. I had worked before 1984 with the Yanomami tribals. I also worked after that. I’m always in the region. What was amazing was that the gold mine was inside the jungle, and today if you go there, it is one completely open region full of farmers with plantations of soybeans.

[This] is part of the Amazônia that was destroyed. You see, we have destroyed today about 18 percent of all Brazilian Amazônia. Yeah, that’s the big fight. You see, we speak a lot about the destruction of Amazônia by the government of Mr. Bolsonaro [President of Brazil] now. Yes, Mr. Bolsonaro is destroying more than any other, but the destruction of Amazônia started much before him. We lost about 18 percent of Amazônia before Mr. Bolsonaro arrived in power.

What is destroying real Amazônia is the consumption society and the demand for the goods that come out of Amazônia. When you are feeding pigs in China and Russia and cows in Europe with the soybeans produced in Amazônia, we are destroying Amazônia. We must take care with the product that goes on around the world, see their origin, and probably try not to buy them.

Amazônia is probably your biggest book at over 500 pages, and today with most people reading books online, what has been the reception of such a big and heavy book from the public?

There isn’t a traditional public for books, not only photo books but printed books around the world. Of course, the new way to read it, a new way to see the image, will transform the way to see and read. But for the moment we must print them as one is not habited to use books online for photography.

Taschen, our publisher, is carbon-free because they buy our carbon in Brazil. We are planting millions of trees, and we are capturing carbon with these trees.

You damaged your knee and almost lost your eye in this project. How did that happen?

I broke my knees twice and had two operations. I broke my tendon left side. On the right side, it is fragilized by accidents. When you walk in this jungle with the Indians, they make long displacement. They decide to fish, and the lake is never very close. It may be about five-six days’ walk inside the jungle. All-day long walking and it’s raining, and for the Indians, it is not a problem because they have no shoes. But with shoes, we don’t stay very well in place, and we drop [fall] a lot. And I twice break my knees, and both my shoulders. We keep literally coming down with disease.

I almost lost my right eye. I was running with one Indian in the forest. He cut off a small bamboo, and it [a splinter] came back, and the point of this bamboo came and hit the corner of my eye. If it were a few millimeters more [to the] right, I [would] have had to lose my eye.

I’m now in treatment for my cervical [neck]. I was younger and working in Mozambique [a southern African nation], and I was with the Portuguese army in a military convoy. Guerrillas attacked us, and the truck I was in was caught in a car mine, a huge mine, which killed the driver and took out both legs of the official sitting in front of the truck. I was sitting in the back and was projected out of the truck. I felt pain in my neck then, but I was young, 30 years old, and thought nothing about that. But small injuries stayed in my cervical, and now because I’m older, I have calcification in this injury, and I have started to have problems in my neck.

That is it — the problem with photographers. To get pictures, you must be there, you must be with people, you must walk, you must expose yourself, and things happen. You have all these small accidents; a little bit breaks here and there. But it was necessary to do and do again because it was so important a privilege to be there, to do these pictures, to know the planet, and that’s the price that you pay for it.

So, Sebastião, all your work is in Black & White. What attracts you to Black & White?

It began when I started photography. I did color, but color for me was very complicated. When I made the color picture, I was 100% sure that I wanted to have the picture back where the reds would be very important, the blues would be very important, and the greens, and I lost my concentration, but when I was photographing black and white, all will be grays.

We have only grays, and I was 100% sure that no color would take advantage of the other in the restitution of the image, and I was in peace. Of course, nothing is in black and white. Black and white is another distraction but going inside the sub-distraction was very important for me to hold my concentration.

Is Amazônia shot on film or digital or both?

Both. I started shooting film. 35mm film. At that time, films were very good and had a lot of silver. Afterward, the price of silver began to go up. They started to reduce the quantity of silver in films, and its [quality] dropped a lot. I went to medium format films to get better quality.

After 9/11 in New York, the security at airports became hell for photographers, and the films suffered a lot from X-rays. I decided to go to digital, and after 2008 I started to work in digital. Now I photograph in digital, but all my lifelong work is with one Kodak film called Tri-X. The grain of this film was so important for me, but I did not have this texture in my pictures with digital. I lose it. Then I find a way to introduce the grain of the Tri-X film in my digital archive, and I print my images with this grain of the Tri-X. That means I have about the same texture in my pictures for my entire life.

Can we ask you what digital camera you are using?

I use Canon cameras. There is one Canon camera that I used basically in my last shoot in Amazon between 2013 and 2019 — Canon 1D X. Canon gave me the prototype of the 1D X, and I did a lot of tests. It was completely protected from the humidity of Amazon. Amazon is very humid, which gave me a very good comfort of work. In Canon, we have a fabulous choice of very high-quality lenses.

What is your favorite lens?

Well, I don’t work with very long lenses. I’m [from] a generation of people to whom a big lens is unimportant. I work with a range between 24mm and 105mm.

And did you say you’re using the Canon 1D X Mark II?

We have 1D X and 1D X Mark II. I worked on all of Amazônia with these two models of cameras. The beginning was with 1D X and later 1D X Mark II.

What did you use in the film days?

I used many different cameras. Basically, in the beginning, I used Leicas. I photographed with the 33mm Leicas, which were amazingly good cameras. Then I came to medium format, where I worked with Pentax 645, which was a very good camera.

When I worked in black and white with film, it was necessary to have a lens of high quality that was not very high contrast. That was very important with Leica and very important with Pentax. Pentax had excellent lenses with very high definition and very low contrast that made it possible to have negatives with a very large grayscale.

Do you use your cell phone to take photographs?

Only of my granddaughter, who is three and a half years old, that’s it.

These are not real photographs. The big problem with the smartphone is that you take images you use in a communication language, but you never print.

Photography is another thing. Photography is the memory of the society that we’re part of. And the bigger problem with the smartphone is that it goes to your archive that you never use anymore. Sometimes you lose everything, sometimes, you drop into the cloud and don’t use it anymore. Photography is tangible. You touch it, have it in your hands, see it repeatedly, and I can do nothing from the smartphone.

When you were in the forest for 1-3 months, did you have portable generators for battery charging?

To bring fuel to turn an engine to produce energy is very complicated. The easiest way is to get solar panels, and I brought in two nice solar panels. They were not too big at about one meter by one and a half meters [40×60 inches]. I link one to the other, and I can charge a battery with them during the day.

What kind of lighting do you use? Is it available light or flash or both?

No, I use only available light. I don’t use flash. I did a lot of pictures in Amazônia in a studio because I carry a studio to Amazônia. I bring a tissue [backdrop] six meters wide by nine meters long. I fixed the studio [backdrop] under the trees and used the natural light coming from the forest. I don’t know how to use a flash. I have never used flash in my life.

Did you have photographic assistants with you to help you with the studio?

Yes, on all these trips to Amazônia, I bring many guys as it is hard to organize an expedition. I get one assistant for photography from Paris. I have a guide for high mountains that is my assistant on any trip I do all over the world. Always the same guide and his name is Jack Bartellini.

But working in Amazônia was necessary to use a lot of boats, and with boats, you must have local guys to pilot the boats. We navigate inside rivers with a lot of wood [floating around]. To not break the propellers all the time, it’s necessary to have guys that know how to navigate the boats, and I usually use three boats. We have three guys driving the boats.

I always have with me two captains of the jungle. As we say in Brazil, capitão da selva is a guy that knows about the jungle. He usually is a half-blood Indian, half-blood outside of the forest, and knows how to fish, hunt, go up a tree, fix a camp, and work in the forest. I always had with me one translator, one anthropologist, and Indians from the FUNAI, the national foundation of the Indians that always come with us. We are 10-12 people with me on every trip to Amazon.

It must be costly to have so many people on so many trips. Are you sponsored on this project?

No. No sponsors at all. You see, I’m today one of the top photographers that sells more prints for collectors around the planet, for collections, for museums, and with the money, I pay for all these trips to Amazônia.

I have no finance method. Before, I worked with many magazines with quite an excellent budget. That allowed me to do my pictures, giving exclusivity to magazines. Now that is no more the case, but now I had a big chance. I became a well-known photographer where people buy my pictures, and with the money from the sale, I produce all these new pictures again.

When you were shooting with negatives, did you do the developing and printing of the films yourself?

No. I always have my darkrooms. I have two printers that work exclusively with me, but the developments were made by two different guys. Not real big laboratories — small laboratory.

When I used films, it was necessary to produce a special developer for the films as I exposed them in a very special way. I always overexposed my negative and underdeveloped the film to have a negative very gray, to have all the details in the shadow. I photographed a lot against the light, and I have a lot of shadow areas. To have the data inside the shadow area, it was necessary to do a special development, and I used one Kodak developer called D-76. However, I made the developer myself and modified the formula of D-76 to have a different kind of negative — much grayer negative

Were the pictures in the book scanned directly from the prints or the negatives?

From the prints. Absolutely from the prints.

How big do you print for the scanning?

For the books, the prints are 30×40 cm [12×16 inches]. My work prints are 24×30 cm [10×12 inches] and smaller. After that, I finished for Amazônia with about 4,000-5,000 prints, and from this, we made a selection that was in the show and for the book. We then print again in a size a little bit bigger, which goes to the book printer.

Are you working with FUNAI, the Brazilian body that controls the welfare of the native Indians or native people? Does FUNAI have to go and take permission from the tribes before you go and photograph them?

I must speak a little about FUNAI, part of the Ministry of Justice. It is a national foundation and has always dealt with Indian affairs in Brazil. FUNAI has a fabulous story. Brazil has 25 percent of all Amazonian territory, Indian territory protected by law by the work of FUNAI, which works in that direction with amazing indigenous guys that were specialized in the tribes–a lot of anthropologists and sociologists.

FUNAI was a very important institution. Today with Bolsonaro, all these guys are yet there because they are functionaries of the state, but Bolsonaro put policemen in place of these fabulous technicians and has become an institution not for the [welfare of] the Indians but for the agribusiness that is destroying Amazônia.

For me to work in Amazônia, it was necessary to go to Brasil to explain to the technicians of the FUNAI my wish to go to Amazônia. I told them which tribe [I wanted to visit], and then FUNAI would send someone to the tribe to get the authorization. You cannot go inside an Indian territory without authorization.

Not only the group chief but all Indians would have a meeting and discussion. If they authorize you, they give the dates they want to receive you, and when you arrive, they are all waiting for you. This is very well controlled. Brazil is one country in the world that has more protection of its environment because FUNAI acts for the Indians in the ministry of environment in Brazil.

One-quarter of Amazônia is Indian territory; another quarter is a national park. Fifty percent of Amazônia is protected by law. Another 50 percent is public land or where the destruction happens. Today Bolsonaro wants to go inside the Indian territories, he wants to go inside the national park, and that is the big fight in Brazil.

You grew up as an economist doing a bachelor’s in economics in Brazil, then a master’s, and finally a Ph.D. in France. Did you already know French when you arrived in Paris to pursue a Ph.D?

Brazil has a secondary school system. Brazil is quite isolated from the rich countries of the world. When I was a child, it was necessary to learn a few languages if you wanted to go to university and continue your studies because most books were not translated into Portuguese.

The first foreign language that we started to learn in secondary school was French, the second was Spanish the third one was English. When I came to France, I knew quite well the French language. I met my wife in Alliance Française, an institution worldwide teaching the French language.

Wonderful. So how did you pivot from being a Ph.D. economist to a photographer?

You see, my wife is an architect, and when I was preparing for my Ph.D. in Paris, she bought a camera to take pictures of architecture. I discovered photography for the first time, which totally invaded my life. I finished my studies and got a job in England, where I went to work for an international coffee organization in London. We did missions with the world bank to Africa to finance economic development projects.

In Africa, I had my cameras always with me, and when I came back to London, the pictures gave me ten times more pleasure than the economic report. In a moment, I needed to choose. In 1973 I decided to become a photographer. I abandoned everything and started my new career in photography

Had you done any photography in Brazil in high school or later?

Never. I never touched a camera. I discovered photography here in France in 1970 when I was doing my studies.

When you started photography in the early 1970s, you did news photography and then pivoted to documentary. How did that change happen?

I started doing [shooting] news with news agencies worldwide, but the news is very complicated because you have no time to understand what is happening around you. To make real photography, you need time, you need people to understand you, you must understand the reality that’s in front of you, and the only way is to have time and spend more time. And in my news picture, I became a documentary photographer.

I started to do only stories I was interested in, like Amazônia. I had a huge wish to live with the Indians, to live in the rainforest. If you don’t have a real project, it is very difficult to hold seven-eight years of doing a story, and after that, I started to do documentary photography. I began to do longer-term stories, stories that were important for me and for my way of life.

In the book, there are two basic genres of photography: one is landscape, and the other is people. Which do you like more to photograph?

Oh, boy! No, I cannot say. These pictures are as important, one as the other. The forest and the forestries must hold. If you lose the forest, we lose all the Indian civilization. But the Indian civilization is very important; it’s probably the biggest concentration of culture all over the planet. We have some 190 different tribes in Amazônia, and we have about 180 different languages.

Only in Brazilian Amazônia do we have a little bit more than 100 groups that have never been contacted. The prehistory of humanity is there inside this forest. This forest is very important for biodiversity. It is very important for the Indian future. This is the beginning of the history of humanity.

One hundred tribes have never been contacted and have never been photographed. Is it okay for them to be photographed with a long lens from a helicopter without making contact?

Me, I never made it. I never took any photographs of the tribe. I believe that these tribals wanted to live in isolation. They must be protected. I have a French friend who made some pictures in 2013 or 2014. I was very upset because to photograph the Indians with a telelens you must come close to them. These guys have never seen anything from our world. Imagine them seeing a helicopter flying over them? Imagine how desperate they will become? You have no right to do this. No, I believe that we must not do this, never do this.

You have photographed in more than 120 countries. How different was Amazônia compared to those 120 countries?

There are few spaces on this planet that are very special. The two spaces that hit me the most in my life were Antarctica and Amazônia. You see, these two spaces are amazing, and we are losing both of them to heating the planet. We are melting all these glaciers in the south of the planet, and Antarctica is a real continent losing its ice. Amazônia is so special that sometimes, the more difficult thing today is that I will no longer be traveling to Amazônia as I did.

What do you want, hope, and wish the book Amazônia does?

I hope that the person who sees this book can read the text I wrote. There is a lot of information. I hope the person will use this book to get informed about Amazônia. They will never be the same person after going through the book. This book can give them a conscience — the importance of Amazônia, the importance of this tribe, the importance of this rain, the importance of this water system, and the importance of this biodiversity. That is my hope that this book can contribute to this direction.

What is your next photo project going to be?

Oh, I am an old man. I’m 78 years old, and I believe there is the service of the shows. Many shows are happening around the world. I am giving a speech, a conference, working for the Indian movement, and working with the environment; I was meant to protect Amazônia. I will be 80 years old in the next two years, and I believe that’s the moment to leave for the others to go ahead. Of course, I will not stop to photograph but probably will be photographing much closer to home than going all over the planet again. I believe that, for me, probably is done.

Amazônia is available from Taschen and Amazon.

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: All photos courtesy Sebastião Salgado and Taschen.