A Thousand Words

Sebastião Salgado was born in 1944 in Brazil. He had a difficult childhood but eventually received a PhD in Economics from the University of Paris. With a degree, he began his professional career as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. It was this job that took him to Africa and a defining moment in his life.

He decided to abandon his career as an economist and become a photographer. He got jobs on news assignments. Eventually, he began to do photographs with a social purpose. He would travel to places around the world to photograph habitats and wildlife that were virtually untouched by modern society.

When he was 69 years of age, his father gave him the family’s cattle ranch. He was facing a dilemma. He had a nomadic lifestyle, and now he was being asked to establish permanence in his childhood home.

What he found when he returned home was nothing like what he remembered as a child. The property, which at one time was 50% forest, had been deforested. Soil erosion had created a dead land.

He began to plant trees to reestablish the original property’s condition. Eventually, over 2 million trees were planted. Wildlife returned and the property is now designated as a nature conserve.

The restoration of his childhood home gave him the idea of traveling to places that were still unspoiled. He hoped that his photographs would help keep those places in their unspoiled condition. As he likes to cite, 45% of the planet is still like it was at the beginning.

Just imagine the power of images to shape how we think about the world and events. A single man standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, a young girl running naked from a bombing in Vietnam, a man diving head first from the World Trade Center on 9/11, Audrey Hepburn cradling a starving child in Africa, rows of grave markers at Arlington, a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire, and a tearful reunion at an airport as soldiers return. Can Sebastião’s photos of the way our world used to look shape our thinking about preserving what has been given to us for future generations? Let’s hope so. A thousand words can make a difference.

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“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lange

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