The silent drama of photography is a 2013 Ted Talk by internationally renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado. It was passed onto me by a former lecturer of mine, Michael Douglass, who met Sebastião and thought that his story carried some powerful sentiments.
On first viewing I struggled to fully grasp the relevance of his story. On the surface it’s not an overly complex or unique story. I think we all accept the power of an image, after all, a picture tells a thousand words. But I think, as Sebastião points out, it is his journey from youthful agitator, to professional economist to curious photographer to passionate advocate that is quite interesting.
If you are interested, below is my short summary of his story and what I took from it.
Sebastião grew up in rural Brazil with over 30 families living off the land in an environment he felt blessed to have shared – the joys of a simple life in balance with the natural environment and all of its plants, birds, animals and people. As a young man he moved to the city to further his education, dabbling in political ideals and eventually completing his bachelor, masters and PhDs in economics before joining the World Bank. His work took him to some of the most underdeveloped parts of Africa where he worked on international aid and development and found his passion for photography. However, so confronting was the scale of human suffering and waste that his mind and body began to reflect his circumstances and he fell seriously ill.
To give his body a chance to heal Sebastião left his career and his photography behind and returned to his family farm in Brazil. The childhood memories he held so dearly were not there to relive on his return. Where the land had once been more than half rainforest, home to thousands of cattle and a community of people, it was now less than half a per cent rainforest with far fewer cattle and people. Catalysed by an idea by his wife Léla, Sebastião began to replant the rainforest. Tree by tree the ecosystem was rebuilt and the farm became a national park, an institute was built, an environmental movement started and finances raised from all around the world. Beginning with a focus on nature, a community and economy was built up.
Sebastião returned to photography. This time with a different perspective. While previously he had focused on one species, humans, this time he would capture more than us, the trees, the landscapes, the other animals and everything else that made up nature. It was not just the beauty of what he was capturing or his gratitude for his turnaround in health. It was a deep desire to represent our world as a whole and help others draw the connections that he had made. In the same way Sebastião himself cannot be fully understood by looking at his life in parts (e.g. economist, photographer or advocate), the world around us cannot be fully appreciated in parts (economy, society, nature).