A couple of weeks ago, back when I had hours and hours to wander around Rome, I went to visit the Sebastião Salgado Amazônia exhibition in the MAXXI museum. I was, of course, incredibly moved by the beauty of the photography and the power of its message. This post will not do it justice, but I hope it encourages you to look deeper into Salgado’s work.
Sebastião Salgado was born in Aimorés, Brasil in 1944. His father had hoped he would become a lawyer, but instead, Salgado chose to study economics. During his time working for the Ministry of Finance, he became involved in a movement against the military government. Considered to be a radical, he was exiled and fled to France where he continued his studies. While working in Rwanda, Salgado became interested in photography and taught himself the craft, taking his first photos here. He decided to dedicate himself to photography and became a freelance photojournalist.
His work vocalises the narratives of silenced people, from the homeless, to the oppressed, to the displaced. In his early career, he garnered attention for his famous photograph of the assassination attempt of John Hickley on Ronald Reagan. From here, he developed a particular style: creating photo series which explored a single, powerful theme. His work centres individuals from silenced minorities within larger contextual imagery but always affording the individuals with their own voice and dignity, despite their conditions. His photoseries work includes Sahel: L’homme en détresse, Other Americas, An Uncertain Grace, Workers and Terra: Struggle of the Landless. His work garnered much critical acclaim and he received many honours for his skill and vision.
Salgado’s Amazônia retains this precision of artistic vision. Shot over the course of 6 years in Brazil’s Amazonian Rainforest, Salgado captures the beauty, the power, the fragility and the vastness of the rainforest. In the MAXXI exhibition, the photographs are suspended and act almost as trees themselves, encouraging you to walk between and around them. Each suspended panel is double-sided and exhibited within separate themes, with information displayed on the walls to educate the viewer about the rainforest, its climate, its dangers, its ecosystem and, most importantly, the fragile balance that is being destroyed by deforestation. The exhibition space is dark so as to highlight the suspended photographs which stand starkly out with their backlights. As you enter, you are met with a wall of sound. What you hear are the sounds of the jungle: birds, rustlings of leaves, thunder, the roar of a waterfall. This is the phenomenal work of composer Jean-Michel Jarre.
I decided to walk the outskirts of this photo-jungle first, following the exhibition space around to the left. In this first space, past my preliminary introduction to the rainforest, I learn about the unique climate of the rainforest and just how important its balance is for the function of the world’s climate. As I continue, I come to learn about what creatures live in the rainforest, what these animals look like, how they behave, how they contribute to the wider ecosystem. Continuing forward, I meet the rivers, waterfalls, mountains and the rains of the Amazon Rainforest. It is hard to not be overwhelmed by the photos that surround you, the vastness & power of the elements, the terrifying fragility of it all.
By now, I have returned to the beginning. I go to the centre of the exhibit. This is where the exhibit focuses on the narratives of the people who live in the rainforest. In the exhibition space, there are a few enclosed circular spaces. Along the outer walls of these circles, there are pictures of individuals and pictures of communities. On each circle or semi-circle, there are photographs of different indigenous groups with an information wall describing their community, their location and their land history. The histories are comprised of the chilling pattern of government sanctioned land theft and the horrific price paid by both indigenous communities and the rainforest itself.
The portraits are powerful, linking indigenous cultures to the lands on which they have lived for aeons. Salgado manages to balance exposure with representation, with info-panels that describe how the photos were taken, where they were taken, and who each person is. This is further emphasised within the circular spaces, where a television screen occupies the very centre, displaying documentary footage of indigenous leaders speaking out against the corruption of the Brazilian government, the complicity of the global community in the genocide of their people and the importance of the rainforest for the wellbeing of the world as a whole.
They discuss how they live with the forest, not just in the forest: how they guard and protect the forest, its waters, its animals, as a place that provides for them and so, they in turn provide for it. They demand action on the part of the viewer, to not remain complicit in their communities’ annihilation, as it will herald not only their extinction but the extinction of the viewer themselves. Without communities who are willing to protect the rainforest and defend it from corrupt corporations and government greed, the rainforest will be irreparably destroyed. With the destruction of the rainforest, we will kill ourselves.
To exit the exhibition, I walk back through the suspended photos I first encountered upon entry. Looking around myself, hearing the sounds of the jungle, the echoes of the leader’s voices, it is incredibly moving how differently these photos appear. When I first entered, the bizarreness and novelty of the shapes, the sounds, the animals all fascinated me, but alienated me at the same time. I was very aware of how little connection I truly felt to this space, despite my curiosity. Leaving the exhibition, looking upon those selfsame photographs, it is hard to not feel enraged and impassioned. It is hard not to feel deeply connected when walking away because now you are so acutely aware of how your life and the lives of countless others depends on this space.
Ciara O’Síoráin (chi desidera diventare la bella donna figa come gli italiani)