Photographers Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson rail for rainforests

By Jennie Gillions | 03 November 2011
A photo of two silhouettes of people rowing a boat under moonlight
© Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
Exhibition: Amazon, Somerset House (East Wing), London, until December 4 2011

Before the exhibition walk-through started, a press officer for the World Wildlife Fund shared with me his concern that "conservation" work was starting to become passé and unpopular.

It has certainly become part of the mainstream to the extent that people have started to challenge the need for it – but I suspect a lot of visitors will leave this exhibition in no doubt that the issue is more pressing than ever.

The first set of photographs, stunning black and white images by Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, impresses upon us both the macro and the micro of what humans are destroying.

Sweeping aerial shots of forest give some understanding of the scale and topography, while images of indigenous populations take us right to the heart of the matter; not only is the planet losing a vital eco and water system of almost unimaginable size, importance and beauty, but the people we are looking at are losing their lifestyles.

These photographs are part of an ongoing series called Genesis, in which Salgado captures the world’s most "pristine" places, where "tribes not in this century" work in equilibrium with their environment.

Salgado's passion for his subjects is infectious. One affecting portrait is of a Kuikuro Indian girl seeing light for the first time in a year, following her seclusion in order to be readied for marriage.

We see Waura tribesmen wrestling on the final day of a ceremony celebrating the dead, and Zo'e Indians, who walk constantly, nomadic and in tune with their surroundings. The tribe has been influenced to a tiny extent by "civilisation" – males, for example, are given flashlights to help them hunt and avoid snakes while walking at night.

While Salgado's pictures emphasise purity and leave us aching to save it, Per-Anders Pettersson's show how much of the forest is being lost already, and what is being done about it.

He and actress Gemma Arterton documented their visit to the state of Acre in support of WWF and Sky project Sky Rainforest Rescue.

Some of the photos are saddening. A gorgeous birds-eye shot shows swathes of forest destroyed to build a road deemed necessary for trade. Another shows Brazil nut trees, protected by the Government but at risk of infertility as unprotected forest around them is devastated.  

The hope lies in images of interactions with local people. One photograph shows locals participating in a Government certification scheme, receiving financial support if they find ways to make a living without destroying any more forest.

Farmers are being educated on the need for the forest, and on how to make money through ideas such as selling rubber products rather than slash and burn agriculture. It’s a long-term project requiring the support of thousands of local people.

There is no attempt to hide the fact that this is as much a fundraising tool as a photography exhibition, but visitors will feel no pressure.

This is about raising awareness, locally with farmers and here among visitors to Somerset House.

Salgado would rather two million people gave £10 each than one philanthropist gave £20 million, because that’s two million more people who understand and care what this fascinating, heartbreaking show is trying to achieve.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission free.
Read Jennie Gillions's blog and follow her on Twitter.

More photos from the show:

A photo of a man leaning against a tree in an Amazon rainforest
A farmer stands in the rain forest near Feijó in Acre state, Brazil. The forest represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests, and it comprises the largest and most species-rich tract of tropical rainforest in the world© Per-Anders Petterson
A photo of Amazon mountains under a dramatic sky
The State of Amazonas, Brazil (2009)© Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
A black and white photo of a river, clouds and rainforests in the Amazon
Swathes of forest have been destroyed to build a road for trade© Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas/nbpictures
A photo of sun rays filtering over a misty forest landscape at dusk
An aerial view as sun rises over the rainforest in Amazonas state, Brazil (June 21 2011)© Per-Anders Petterson
A photo of a group of people in a queue in a rainforest setting
Local farmers queue for lunch at a meeting with local politicians near Feijó, Acre state, Brazil (June 21 2011)© Per-Anders Petterson
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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