My wife and my daughter gave me as a father’s day gift, a book of photographs by Sebastian Salgado entitled “Genesis”. He is one of the greatest photographic artists in the world, with two projects already achieved, “Workers” which focused on manual labour, and “Migrations” which depicts one of the the most disturbing global trends of our time. He had planned a project on ecological degradation, but a creative experiment in which he successfully restored the flora of an ancestral piece of land, convinced him that he should record primal beauty rather than its destruction by humanity. The marvellous volume which I now possess, published by Taschen, is one result of his visits to those parts of the planet least altered by human beings.
He has perfected the art of looking with his camera, finding angles and exposures which show the viewer a world always in motion, always alive, always still becoming; the miracle of life united with the environment to which its DNA has adapted, is celebrated on every page. The co-genesis of the planet and its creatures is shown not only in relation to flora and fauna, but also to homo sapiens, here captured in customs of stable adjustment to nature which are everywhere vanishing. Salgado has called this book his love -letter to the planet, and it is an apt title. He is not first of all using his camera to speak to you and me, but to the planet itself, and to humanity only as one of its wonders. It reminds me time and again of lines by Ezra Pound in his Pisan Cantos:
“Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
made beauty or made order or made grace…
learn of the green world how to take thy place
in scaled invention and true artistry”
This is a book which will refresh the jaded eye and spirit for years to come.
By its title however, he challenges comparison with the first book of the Christian Bible, a comparison which reveals clearly that he has displaced humanity from its biblical place in the centre of the story. This is for our human good so that we can begin to tell our story as part and only part of the story of the earth. The book of Genesis does this in its first chapter, which begins with the creation of light and ends with the rest of the Sabbath day. But within a few pages of Genesis a murder has taken place. Human beings have already usurped the order established by the Creator; in their desire to have godlike power they have stolen knowledge. From that point in the Bible, the human beings become the people we know, capable of great goodness but also of great wrong, of deceit, jealousy, hatred, violence and destruction. The Creator who has made humanity in the likeness of God, to care for his earth, is so overtaken by the deliberate and ingenious evil of humanity, that he decides all living things must go. Why not just do away with humans? Because God knows that human beings belong with these creatures, just as much as any Darwinian. In the end the creatures survive the flood together, but within a paragraph or two, humans have gone back to their old habits of wrongdoing.
The world depicted in Delgado’s Genesis is innocent: there is savagery of landscape, weather, glaciation and predation, but there is no evil; even the human beings are innocent and integrated with their environment. The human groups Delgado selects are “primitive”, at risk from global commerce and contact. They have been “left behind” in their innocence, by their brothers and sisters who developed sophisticated agriculture, industry, and communications, with whom Delgado has been concerned in his previous work. He knows of course, that in many places, the lands have been deforested, the rivers dammed, the lakes poisoned, the women raped and killed. But he wants to reveal the extent to which the planet remains beautiful because it remains creative. He wants his viewers to fall in love with it all over again.
Yet the sober narrative of the biblical Genesis is also necessary with its reminder of the pervasive arrogance and destructiveness of homo sapiens, who push God to abandon grand schemes of punishment, and to entrust his creative wisdom to one small family of desert nomads, which means he has to abandon his celestial existence and get down and dirty on this earth, with this people. This story is continued in the New Testament by the story of Jesus, who is described as the one through whom God made the worlds, the maker and restorer of beauty.
For me, the creative spirit speaks through Delgado’s creative response to our planet, counselling us not to be so arrogant about our wrongs as to forget the rightness of the world. We may have “fallen” but it has not.
* all images by Sebastiao Delgado