African Connections

Sebastião Salgado is one of the true living legends of photography. His latest book, Africa, examines the continent in a way that only Salgado’s provocative imagery can.
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A leopard in the Barab River Valley, Damaraland, Namibia.

Sebastião Salgado’s book, Africa (Taschen), pays homage to Africa’s people, wildlife and landscape. It’s a magnificent collection of images culled from more than three decades of the Brazilian-born, Paris-based photographer’s work on the continent.

Salgado’s images have earned him numerous awards and accolades, but one of his most prized is being named as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. His deep concern for the people and places before his lens is evident in every frame.

Outdoor Photographer: What is it about Africa that fascinates you?

Sebastião Salgado: I’m Brazilian, and Africa for us is a place that’s much closer to us spiritually than it is for the Europeans who were there and colonized it. Americans are far away from Africa, though part of your population came from there. But for us, Africa is the other side of the same piece of earth. One hundred and fifty million years ago, Africa and South America were just one land. The things you have on one side you have on the other. A lot of the plants that you have in Africa we have in Brazil. With evolution, there are differences, but the base is the same. The climate is the same.

In the 18th century, an incredible amount of diamonds were discovered in Brazil. We couldn’t find the vein where the diamonds pushed out from in South America. With the separation of the continents, the diamonds that were discovered in Brazil came from the vein that stayed a thousand meters underground in Namibia. They are identical diamonds that are found in the ditches in Namibia. It’s unbelievable.

In the hills of Moko at the Gisovo tea plantation, Rwanda.

We, as did the United States, had a big group of Africans that came to Brazil as slaves. But Brazil is completely different from other nations because it’s a country where the mix of races really happens. We have so many mixtures in Brazil—Asian-Black, White and Black. When I was a child, Africa was huge in my dreams. I always wanted to go there.

Outdoor Photographer: You had a job as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. Was that when your dream of going to Africa came true?

Salgado: My first trip to Africa was to Kenya for the ICO. It was then and there that I started photography. My book Africa is the result of between 35 and 40 trips there.

Outdoor Photographer: You’ve tended to be more of a people photographer over the years, but your Africa book includes many images of landscapes and animals.

Salgado: I’ve done so many kinds of pictures in my life, even advertising. But I’ve become known as a social photographer. My wife, Lelia, divided the book into three chapters with images of animals and landscapes included in each section. The first concentrates on the southern part of the continent—Mozambique, Malawi, Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia—where there was a big fight for liberation. The second is on the Great Lakes region—the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya—which is an area that has struggled with social disorientation and ethnic conflict. The third section is on the sub-Saharan region—Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal and Ethiopia—which often suffers from severe droughts and brings a very tough life for the humans there. We have a tendency to see Africa as just one monoblock, and it’s not.

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Outdoor Photographer: How are you able to get up close and personal with the subjects of your photographs, yet remain almost invisible to them?

Salgado: You need time, only this—real time. With the Bushmen, for example, I spent many days and nights with these guys. I became integrated with them. It was a pleasure for me to spend time with them. You must have a big identification with the things that you’re doing to be able to spend a long time in a place.

The Kunene Valley, which forms the border between Angola and Namibia, was originally shaped by glaciers about 280 million years ago. Desert elephant, Main Huab River Valley, Damaraland, Namibia.

Outdoor Photographer: What photography equipment are you working with? You must be working with pretty sturdy equipment to survive the conditions you’re exposing your equipment to.

Salgado: I use Leicas and a Pentax 645, both with TRI-X film. In the Africa book, there are a lot of medium-format pictures. I choose medium format when I want to exhibit bigger pictures. The longest lens I have for the Pentax is a 300mm. The longest I have for the Leica is an 80-200mm zoom. My other lenses are all shorter. Normally, I handhold these lenses; they’re very stable. The Pentax lenses are excellent for black-and-white and give a very nice field of gray tonalities. The Pentax 645 has very good zooms as well. The Pentax has a 120mm macro lens that’s an incredibly good lens. Pentax also has a 75mm that’s very good, and it has a 45mm that’s like a 28mm in the 35mm format. It has a small zoom that covers 45-85mm that’s incredibly good. When I shoot in interiors, I must go to the faster prime lenses. I have a 55mm ƒ/2.8 that’s very good for low-light situations.

Outdoor Photographer: Do you ever work with a flash or tripod?

Salgado: Flash, no. I work with two kinds of tripods. I have a Leica tabletop tripod, which I put laterally on my chest with the Pentax 645 so I can shoot handheld at a very low speed. I also have a Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod.

Outdoor Photographer: You tend to work with wider lenses and get in close when you work with people. Do you have a different approach when you photograph animals?

Salgado: It depends on the animals. Some animals allow you to be close, so I can work with them with a short lens. Those that don’t I must shoot with a long lens, though I don’t have the really long lenses that many animal photographers have. Some of the animal photos as well as some of the landscapes were shot from a balloon in Namibia. Balloons are fabulous to photograph from—no vibration, no noise. You become the wind.

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Outdoor Photographer: Do you think about going to digital?

Salgado: I prefer the black-and-white I get with film. For the moment, a digital camera that does what I want with black-and-white doesn’t exist. I’m digitizing negatives with an Imacon scanner so we can send images to magazines and the press. I have a traditional darkroom for exhibition and gallery prints.

Epupa Falls, Kunene River, the border of Angola and Namibia. To cope with the extreme high temperature at times in the Namib Desert, the gemsbok will reduce its body temperature by way of behavioral means, like standing on a dune crest, Deadvlei area, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia.

Outdoor Photographer: What do you hope people will come away with when they look through your Africa book?

Salgado: Africa is an incredible continent, and I think we have to respect Africa and see it in other ways. There is a beautiful text in the book by Mia Couto, Mozambique’s most celebrated author who is also an ecologist. Mia describes how Africa reflects the effects of colonization as well as the consequences of economic, social and environmental problems. Hopefully, people will come away with a better comprehension of this continent—from the hard life to the beautiful landscape, beautiful animals and beautiful people. Africa is a marvelous continent.

Outdoor Photographer: You’ve also documented the horrors that have taken place there. Wasn’t your friend Joseph Munyankindi, who you first met while you were working as an economist for the International Coffee Organization, killed in the Rwandan genocide?

Female mountain gorilla with her infant on the flanks of the Karisimbi Volcano, Virunga National Park, Rwanda.

Salgado: His wife, his children and his whole family were killed along with a million other people in this genocide. He was a Hutu and his wife was a Tutsi. We must learn to have respect for others, as well as for nature and the planet. We’re still young in this urban society. We’ll disappear as a species if we don’t learn. But I have hope.

We have an environmental project, the Instituto Terra (, which is involved with the reforestation of Brazil’s Atlantic rain forest. At first, the farmers in the area didn’t trust us. But with discussions, debate, education and real ideals of solidarity, the situation completely changed. We’ve already planted 1.1 million trees, and we now have a nursery capable of producing one million seedlings per year. If you don’t become radical, if you don’t close your position, almost anything is possible.

Outdoor Photographer: What photography project are you working on now?

Salgado: A project called Genesis. I’m only working with the Pentax 645 because we want to make very large prints when we’re finished in 2011.

I’m making photographs of landscapes, wildlife and human communities around the globe that represent nature in its original state. For example, I’m photographing the Bushmen in Africa that are living the way people lived in Paleolithic times. They’re real hunters and gatherers. They don’t have chiefs, they don’t have religion, they don’t have property, they don’t have agriculture, they don’t domesticate animals—they just collect and hunt.

I’m looking for the planet we had in the beginning. What’s fabulous is that 46 percent of our planet is still in a pristine state. We’ve destroyed 54 percent. But we can mend this. We don’t have to go back to the Stone Age; we just have to learn how to be more environmentally friendly.

You can see more of Sebastião Salgado’s photography by visiting and The book, Africa, is published by Taschen and is available in bookstores.