Between seeing like a man and seeing like an animal: Sebastião Salgado’s “Genesis”

Sebastião Salgado’s most recent photographic work turns away from his now more traditional themes – e.g. labour, migration, war and genocide … what may be summarised as a concern with the violent dramas of the human condition – to capture “nature”: landscapes, animals, human communities.  Lélia Wanick Salgado, who curated the exhibition of the photographs, describes them as a “tribute to a threatened planet”.

Genesis is a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.  It is a journey to the landscapes, seascapes, animals and peoples that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world.  And it is testimony that our planet still harbers vast and remore regions where nature reigns in silent and pristine majesty.

“Such wonders are to be found in polar circles and tropical rainforests, in wide savannahs and scorching deserts, on glacier-covered mountains and solitary islands.  Some regions are too cold or arid for all but the hardiest forms of life, others are home to animals and ancient tribes whose survival depends on their isolation.  Together, they form a stunning mosiac of nature in all its unspoiled grandeur.

“Through these photographs, Genesis aspires to show and to share this beauty.  It is a visual tribute to a fragile planet that we all have the duty to protect.” (Lélia Wanick Salgado, Lisbon Exhibition of Genesis, 12/04/2015 – 02/08/2015)

There are landscapes of sublime beauty, majestic animals and “primitive” peoples in symbiosis with their natural worlds.  But of what nature are we speaking here?  The primordial beginnings of earthly nature and its life, or a Rousseau like fantasy of natural nobility?  Are the worlds and beings photographed truly beyond the “long reach of today’s world”?  Is this nature “pristine” and “unspoiled”?  Or does not Salgado’s camera eye render all such claims vain?

If Salgado’s typical human subjects have disappeared, his photographs of animals often capture them in anthropomorphic gestures …

While his human subjects sometimes betray an exoticism of lost natural simplicity, when not reminiscent of earlier eroticised representations of savage humans …

… or often reveal to us histories of ways of seeing that are by no means innocent, ethically or politically …

Théodore Chassériau, Oriental Interior

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath

Paul Cézanne, Bathers

And yet it is precisely in his human subjects that Salgado betrays his intentions.  The voyeurism that the photographs invite, a voyeurism that Susan Sontag described as consequent of the proliferation of “realistic” images that stand as a substitute for, and even measure of the perception/experience of reality, levels reality and thus undermines exotic distance.  The photograph is an act of appropriation, with all of the violence that this implies.  But in the photographic appropriation, all is equally made contemporary. Contemporary however not in the sense of a chronological periodisation, as close to us in time, but as the experience of a dissonance with the present; the experience of that which is normally hidden in everyday experience. (Giorgio Agamben, What is the contemporary?)  Salgado’s “primitives” are not an example of primordial human communities (such things simply do not exist), nor are they merely the objects of Salgado’s imagination, however generous or corrupted (all representation distances, renders foreign, exotic); they are rather images of ourselves, of what we possibly can be beyond the repetition of our own ways of life.  What seduces in the Genesis photographs of human communities is not their simplicity, but their joy and their pride in themselves and in the beauty and magic of how they live …

And in the photographs of animals, those that refuse our gaze, or are fearful of it …

… or whose nature is such that what we see calls forth some part of ourselves, while at the same time being radically resistant to assimilation …

In such instances, Salgado sees with the eyes of an animal, as it is the animal that returns his gaze.  And what then emerges is not a political engagement of protecting nature, but of integrating ourselves with it such that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the energies of life that animate it.  The enormous power of Salgado’s photography has always been its capacity to capture even in the most wretched and violent of circumstances the power of life.  And the beauty of Genesis lies in its effort to seize the life that ainmates all that is on our fragile planet.  Our task then is not to protect nature, but to create it, in such a way that the desire of all living beings may collectively proliferate.

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