Salgado:You try to prepare yourself, and you may have a good notion of where you are going, but you don’t know exactly what you will find. There is the moment of surprise when you discover things as they really are in that place. For Genesis, I was working in the north of Ethiopia. I started in Lalibela, and walked 850 kilometres through the mountains, on paths that our species has been travelling over for 5,000 years. I lived at first with tribes, the majority of whom had not seen anyone from our Western society. No one had taken pictures of what we saw, of incredible erosions in the canyon of the Takezé River, that brings its waters to the Blue Nile, which flows into the Nile River that created all the fertile lands in Egypt, that is the basis of our modern history. That’s the side of photography that brings you to a fresh world.
Burtynsky:The actual getting into places is a bit of an art, especially when they don’t want you there. You have to be convincing that the work is of a high quality and related to ideas that they can see value in. Some mining companies gave me full carte blanche and other places felt threatened and said no.
The places in China I never managed to get into were factories that were making things for the U.S. market. I wanted to get rows and rows of Chinese workers making Spider-Man figures. But any factory that had contracts with America had a no-photography stipulation, for fear of a camera maybe picking up unsafe practices. I was restricted to factories making things for the Chinese market. I had a much easier time getting into those places than into factories in North America, particularly after 9/11.
There is one place where Sebastião’s path and mine crossed, in the shipbreaking yards at Chittagong in Bangladesh, where they recycle the largest objects we’ve ever made as a species. People there were telling me, “There was another photographer here, 11 years ago.” But I was coming at it from a totally different direction, looking at things as they come to the end of their life, accumulate somewhere in the landscape and get processed to be further engaged in other things. I was following material, versus following the worker.
Salgado:I arrived in Chittagong because the centre line of my Workers project was ship construction and ship death. In reality, a ship is born in iron-ore mines and coal mines and steel plants, where they produce the flat steel that goes to a shipyard. I photographed in all those places, everything that was produced by workers to build a ship. When a ship has no more reason to be, they send it to Bangladesh and workers cut it apart, slice by slice. They don’t have iron ore or steel plants in Bangladesh, so every metal they use comes from ships.
I had problems sometimes getting permission to photograph workers, but the problems were not in countries we think of as very controlling. When I went to the Soviet Union to shoot in the iron-ore mines, people said I would never get authorization. But I had fewer problems in Russia and China than I did in Venezuela with the oil industry. They thought my work was too social, too close to the worker, and not enough to the glory of their industry. I convinced them, but the day I started at Maracaibo was the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Because of that attack on the Kuwaiti oil fields, the Americans felt they had to protect the security of oil wells in Venezuela, and they pushed out everyone who was not part of the industry.
Burtynsky:But then you went to Kuwait!