Salgado:I went to Kuwait, absolutely. When the troops of Saddam Hussein came out, I went immediately to Saudi Arabia, hired a four-wheel-drive car and drove through the desert to Kuwait. And at this moment it was not necessary to get authorization, because all the border controls were destroyed. The country was completely empty of authority. All the oil wells were burning, and there were only these guys from Canada and the U.S., trying to stop the fires, to cap the oil wells. I worked there for one month, completely alone, driving around with a compass. It was one of the most incredible episodes of my life. I had the impression I was photographing in a huge theatre, because sometimes for two or three days you would have no light. If you had no wind, all the heavy smoking from these burning oil wells would create a kind of filter against the light. It would be dark for 24 hours straight. But sometimes you would see a small opening on the horizon, and that was so incredible.
For Genesis, I worked with a tribe in Brazil that had not been contacted before, and with another that was contacted just 10 or 15 years ago. They are living in a very dangerous moment, because we are slowly destroying the rain forest where they live. I believe that is the most important point we must put into discussion, how to protect this area. Not just because they are the most important points for the water system, and for the sequestration of carbon, but because in these places we can find ourselves as we were 10,000 or 50,000 years ago.
I do a lot with a bridge organization called Survive International, that works with populations that are in danger. There is another tribe in Brazil called Zo’é, who started to have a lot of mining research around their land. It was the time when Lula was the Brazilian president, and we know him quite well. He signed a law making the land a national reserve that is protected.
The bushmen in Botswana were living their lives as they did 50,000 years ago, till it was discovered that there were a lot of diamonds inside their land. The government pushed them out, put them in a kind of refugee camp and completely destroyed their way of life. We worked with a small group of bushmen who live in the Kalahari desert, in the traditional way. And some of those pictures are here in Genesis; they are part of the story.
To do these kinds of stories, you must have a big identification with them, an ideological and ethical identification. To do one story for five, six, eight years, you must be very happy with it. It becomes a big privilege and a pleasure, and you don’t see the years go.
In the end, your pictures become your life.
Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis opens at the Royal Ontario Museum on Saturday and continues until Sept. 2. An exhibition of images from Genesis, Workers and his Migrations series continues at Toronto’s Nicholas Metivier Gallery through May 25. Both shows are part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, which runs through May 31.Ed Burtynsky’s exhibition Oil opens at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on May 31 and continues until Sept. 2.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.