Photography of Hope Sebastião Salgado looks for a new beginning in the Galápagos.
Sebastião Salgado has seen the worst of humanity. Over the past 30 years, the Brazilian-born photojournalist has documented the plight of exploited workers, impoverished slum dwellers, and refugees fleeing murderous regimes. His luminous black-and-white pictures established his reputation but left him feeling despair for mankind. Reflecting on a trip to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, Salgado wrote of his realization that evolution's direction isn't set: "We can evolve negatively, going to the death... to the most brutal end."
For what he calls his final project, the 61-year-old Salgado has turned his gaze from scenes of horror to those of hope. In 2004, he began an eight-year effort to document the world's most pristine ecosystems, wildest species, remotest tribes, and oldest remnants of human settlements. With this project, dubbed Genesis, Salgado aims to create a picture of "the pure and virginal face of nature and of humanity." In the planet's beginnings, he believes he will find a key to its future.
It is perhaps fitting that the first phase of Genesis took Salgado to the place that most influenced Darwin's theories of evolution during an 1835 visit: the Galápagos Islands. Although the animal kingdom can be as bloodthirsty as the human world, Salgado was impressed by what he calls the "conviviality" of the Galápagos creatures. Flightless cormorants waddle past lounging sea lions. Lava lizards clamber over the backs of marine iguanas, while giant tortoises stretch out their wizened necks to allow tiny finches to pick parasites from their skin.
Striking too are the niches each species has carved out in this primal place, where volcanic eruptions continue to shape the arid and often barren terrain. With no natural predators, the islands' cormorants lost their ability to fly but became strong swimmers that feast on the bounty of the sea. The marine iguana, the only kind to live in saline waters, can remain submerged for up to an hour and expel excess salt by sneezing. Even the feral cat, abandoned by sailors, has learned to fish—adapting well enough to pose a threat to other species.
Like the human subjects in his earlier work, the inhabitants of the Galápagos have found ways to survive in a harsh world. Some have even begun to make it more hospitable. On the cooled lava flows of Fernandina Island, a mangrove's young roots split the rock, slowly transforming it into sand, then soil on which future generations can thrive.
To see our gallery of Salgado's Galápagos photos, order a copy of the January/February 2006 issue by sending a check for $4 to Printed Materials, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3459. To pay by credit card, call (415) 977-5653 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.