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The ‘Gift of Pictures’: Praemium Imperiale Laureate Sebastião Salgado on his Photography

The 2021 Painting Laureate touches his world by bringing the pain of the displaced and abused, and the wonder of nature, to the world through the power of his pictures.

JAPAN Forward

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The arts enrich our lives and express where we are as humanity at any given moment, help us understand where we’ve been, and give us hints at where we might be going. 

In this first year of the resumption of the Praemium Imperiale awards after the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the globe, the Japan Arts Association has selected laureates in the fields of art, sculpture, architecture and music, whose individual achievements, and impact on the arts internationally, have played a role in enriching the global community.

Sebastião Salgado, Photo: Shun Kambe

This year’s laureate in painting is artist and photographer Sebastião Salgado (Brazil/France), recognized by the Japan Arts Association as for his powerful works that “put a spotlight on the dispossessed and exploited, the beauty of nature, and the fragility of the world and its inhabitants.” 

In an interview upon being named the 2021 Praemium Imperiale laureate in the field of music, the artist reflected on the passion and the pain that has accompanied his exploration of the world through photography. Excerpts follow.

Sharing the wonder of a place and its people:

From the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2019, I have worked with 12 indigenous communities and traveled a lot through Amazonia ー sometimes by river, sometimes with the Brazilian army, who took me to their missions.

I have been able to show a very different picture of Amazonia than the one we are used to seeing: I have been able to show the Amazonian mountains, which were virtually unknown. And the true water systems of Amazonia, the flying rivers of Amazonia.

Through these photos, I very much wanted to show this wonder, this paradise which is Amazonia. To show its water system, its rainwater system, its people, so that together ー across the entire planet ー we can have a true representation of Amazonia.

Artist and photographer Sebastião Salgado (Praemium Imperiale interview, screenshot)

The pain of documenting violence:

For years I only did human photography, until 1994, when I was doing a large body of work on population movements, on migration across the world. I went through very difficult times in Africa, especially during the Rwanda genocide, through very difficult times in the former Yugoslavia.

I almost had to give up photography because I became ill from seeing so much violence. So we retired. 

Nature and humans: a forest of inspiration:

We set up an environmental project in Brazil. We settled at my parents’ farm, and we started to plant a forest.

And seeing those trees returning, I felt a tremendous urge to get closer to the planet, and to photograph nature. It is from the early 2000s (2003, 2004) that I started to photograph nature. 

Today my life revolves between human photography and nature photography.

Artist and photographer Sebastião Salgado (Praemium Imperiale interview, screenshot)

Permission and the gifts that follow:

To make a photo, you need to have an authorization ‒ not a written authorization, nothing signed, but a tacit authorization. It should not be you taking photos, it should be the person in front of you who gives you the photo as a gift. 

At that moment you enjoy a huge degree of integration with the groups you are photographing, with the groups you are working with.

Living through photography:

It is sometimes said that I am an economist-photographer, or that I am an anthropologist-photographer, or that I am a photo-reporter. But it is none of that. Photography is my form of life. 

I live through photography. I comprehend the world through photography. It is through photography that I have been able to place myself in the historical moments that I have witnessed.

Artist and photographer Sebastião Salgado (Praemium Imperiale interview, screenshot)

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Author: JAPAN Forward