Sebastião Salgado photographs life in the Amazon — before it is too late Sebastião Salgado flew with the Brazilian military to create images of inaccessible areas of rainforest and the life it contains. "Amazonia is paradise," the 78-year-old photographer says.

In the lush Amazon, a photographer hopes to document life before it is too late

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The photographer Sebastiao Salgado has been documenting the Amazon in his native Brazil for decades. His new exhibition of photos of the rainforest now hangs at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the North American premiere.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In two large gallery spaces, you hear a soundscape from the Amazon rainforest - birds, monkeys, insects, frogs and people's voices. The sound highlights Sebastiao Salgado's photos - more than 200 large-scale black and white images that almost seem backlit.

You use all natural light.

SEBASTIAO SALGADO: Only natural light - I don't know how to use artificial light.

DEL BARCO: He's captured lush tropical trees, dramatic clouds, the sinuous river, as well as the biodiversity of the jungle.

JEFFREY RUDOLPH: It's a beautiful exhibit. The images are enchanting.

DEL BARCO: Jeffrey Rudolph is the president and CEO of the California Science Center, which is hosting the exhibition "Amazonia."

RUDOLPH: You learn a lot about the forest, unexpected things about the Amazon, the mountains in the Amazon, the flying rivers. The Amazon is a unique system in which it creates its own rain.

DEL BARCO: In some of the photos, you can see huge rain clouds, immense waterfalls and misty mountain peaks. Salgado says he flew with the Brazilian military over some of the most inaccessible areas to capture them with his camera.

SALGADO: Amazonia is as the paradise. The light is amazing. The clouds is amazing. The people - amazing.

DEL BARCO: The 78-year-old photographer lives in Paris and has traveled to more than 130 countries capturing images of genocide, starvation, war and natural disasters. But he always returned to Brazil, where he grew up in another rainforest along the Atlantic. For years, he and his wife, Lelia, worked to restore a portion of the Atlantic forest that had been damaged. They also created a nature reserve and an institute for reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

Salgado has made more than 58 trips to Amazonia, where he's lived with some of the hundred tribes protected by Brazil's National Indian Foundation.

SALGADO: You've seen those in the forest. They are integrate with the water, with the soil, with the forest, with the animals.

DEL BARCO: Salgado says they would often arrive surrounded by birds and other animals. He says he slept in hammocks next to them and spoke through interpreters.

SALGADO: They were never interested by my cameras, by my satellite phone. No interest. They were very interested by my knife because my knife has utility for them. Once, one guy ask, Sebastian, give me your knife when you go.

DEL BARCO: Salgado set up an outdoor studio, draping large black backdrops to shoot portraits. For example, women in headdresses and elaborate face paint stare into his camera. Salgado says his "Amazonia" exhibition is tied to the Indigenous and environmental movements in Brazil. It includes videos of tribal leaders talking about the destruction of the rainforest.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SALGADO: They know that they are in danger to disappear, that the government in Brazil - Bolsonaro government - is destroying the forests in very high speed, and they are desperate to protect the land. And they are using this show to speak about that problem.

DEL BARCO: Like them, Salgado blames the outgoing Brazilian government for further endangering and eroding the Amazon.

SALGADO: They are real bandits. What they are doing not only in Amazon, but elsewhere in Brazil, is a disaster.

DEL BARCO: The photographer had longed for a new president, and just days ago, Brazilians elected leftist leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Salgado also says he hopes that in 50 years, his exhibition, "Amazonia," is not a documentation of a lost forest, a lost Indigenous people, a lost world.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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