Review of Sebastiao Salgado's new exhibition 'Genesis'

A young domesticated monkey, called a sagui, balances on Amapirawai’s head, 2013. © Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures

The Yamal Peninsula, Siberia: a Nenets woman kneels on the ground and hacks at the Arctic ice with an axe. A sled dog waits by her side; beyond them, the wind-crusted snow stretches to a horizon that is indistinguishable from the leaden sky.

The Nenets are nomadic reindeer herders; the woman was photographed on her migration from the larch trees of the southern taiga, to the northern expanses that fringe the Kara Sea. They have lived in this region for over a thousand years, following their reindeer across ancient routes that criss-cross the permafrost, eating boiled reindeer meat, white salmon and mountain cranberries, and cracking thick ice to reach water.

The image is from ‘Genesis’, a new exhibition by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, which opened at London’s Natural History Museum in April 2013. ‘Genesis’ is the culmination of 8 years’ work, during which Salgado photographed, as the exhibition material describes, ‘remaining pristine environments, their animals and people’ in 32 countries.

Salgado’s beautiful wildlife images show Chinstrap penguins skidding across icebergs, and the wide-winged wheeling of albatrosses above their colony in the Falkland Islands; they portray the sly sideways glance of a Gelada baboon, water dripping from the tail of a Southern Right whale like a silver-beaded curtain, and a lone baboon crossing the sand dunes of Namibia.

The exhibition also includes stunning landscape photographs, almost biblical in their grandeur: fog banks forming on a Zambian river, jagged mountain chains rising from a Patagonian ice field, the white majesty of an iceberg adrift on the Weddell Sea. Some are taken from above – a herd of zebra kicking up dust as they stampede across a plain; others from ground level – the eyes of a hundred caiman lit up like fireflies in the black Brazilian night. One exhilarating photograph is taken from a jeep in Zambia, as it speeds Salgado away from a charging bull elephant.

But as editorial consultant to Survival International and author of ‘We are One – a celebration of tribal peoples’ (to which Salgado kindly donated one of his Bushman images), I was particularly interested in Salgado’s photographs of tribal peoples. ‘Genesis’ includes images of a Bushman hunter twirling sticks of trumpet-thorn to light a fire; of Dinka tribesmen herding their long-horned cattle; and Mursi women from the lower Omo river in Ethiopia.

The extent to which Indigenous peoples are familiar with their environments becomes very clear from Salgado’s tribal images. This intimacy is evident in the portrait of Waura men fishing on a misty river in Brazil’s Upper Xingu; a Mentawai man shinning up a tree against a backdrop of giant palms and tumbling lianas and Yali women from West Papua carrying bags woven from orchid fibres. These distinct environments have not only sustained tribal peoples physically for centuries, but have also helped to shape their ideas, languages and collective identities. ‘This land is where we are at home, we know its ways,’ said an Akawaio woman from Guyana. It should come as no surprise that 80% of the world’s biologically rich areas are the territories of tribal communities who have found ingenious ways of catering for their needs and maintaining the ecological balance of their surroundings.

In a speech to open ‘Genesis’, ex-President Lula da Silva of Brazil said of Salgado, ‘Those who follow his work will see photographs that tell a story.’ His stories do indeed inspire wonder, trigger the imagination and remind us that we live in an astonishingly beautiful world. The evocation of strong emotion through powerful art is a valuable process, particularly if it acts as a catalyst for a change in public consciousness; not least if policies to protect vulnerable peoples, species and places are ultimately born of such responses.

But there exist devastating back-stories to the tribes in Salgado’s images. We can see from his photographs what we risk losing if we waste human diversity, if species become extinct and if the natural world is continually degraded. As Salgado said in an interview, ‘We live today on a planet that can die. Our very existence is in danger.’ But we cannot tell from the photographs what tribal peoples have already lost – their families, homes, health and happiness – or, that the existence of many tribes has long been in danger. There are only five surviving members of the Akuntsu tribe of Brazil following the massacre of their people at the hands of gunmen employed by cattle ranchers, for example. Tragically, some no longer exist at all: on average, one Brazilian tribe died out every year during the 20th Century.

We cannot see from the image of Mursi women with clay lip-plates that their future, and that of many other Indigenous peoples that live along the Lower Omo valley in Ethiopia, now lies in the balance. The tribes in this historically significant region have depended on the river for their livelihood for thousands of years, but a massive hydroelectric dam now under construction will block the southwestern part of the river, so ending its natural flood cycle and jeopardizing the tribes’ flood-retreat cultivation methods. ‘There is no singing and dancing along the Omo River now,’ a Mursi man told Survival. The tribes are also being evicted from their lands for biofuels and cash crop plantations, which has led to the detention and killing of some people. ‘The people are too hungry. The kids are quiet. If the Omo floods are gone, we will die.’

The Zo’é people, who are one of the most isolated of all contacted tribes in Brazil, have also lived for thousands of years on a tract of lush rainforest in the northwest of the country. In recent years, gold miners and missionaries have periodically invaded their land. The Zo’é have largely continued with their way of life, but they are still extremely vulnerable to diseases brought in by outsiders who periodically encroach on their land.

Like the Zo’é and the Mursi, the Bushmen of southern Africa are not only vulnerable, but also the most victimized peoples in their region’s history. They were hunter-gatherers for millennia, but when diamonds were discovered on their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana, many were forcibly removed from their homes. They were driven to eviction camps outside the reserve, where prostitution, depression, alcoholism and HIV-AIDS – social problems they had never before encountered – are now rife. ‘I do not want this life,’ a Gana Bushman told a Survival campaigner. ‘First they make us destitute by taking away our life, then they say we are nothing because we are destitute.’ Even now, they are preparing for yet another court case for the right to live on their land in peace. The land they understand so well; the land that is integral to their identity as a people. ‘We were made the same as the sand,’ said one Bushman. ‘This place is my father’s father’s father’s land.’

So it is important that in appreciating the extraordinary stories Salgado visually recounts we also have access to the facts about their situations: that tribal lands are logged, mined, cleared and torched by governments or corporations solely interested in the minerals that lie beneath their soil, the trees that tower over them and the gold that washes through their rivers; that the peoples Indigenous to these lands are rarely consulted and frequently evicted; that an estimated 100,000 tribal Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian authorities since the 1960; that social disintegration, chronic diseases, suicide and reduced life expectancy are just some of the consequences of trying to assimilate, forcibly, tribal peoples into mainstream cultures.

The disappearance of the world’s tribal peoples is not inevitable. They are not doomed societies, destined to die out naturally. There are solutions, and they lie in the recognition of two basic rights: to self-determination and to land. Survival International has worked to uphold these rights for over 40 years, with many successes.

But it is only in being aware of the truth of tribal lives – in knowing the grim realities as well as seeing the beauty of their ways of life in arresting images – that their stories become complete.