An Interview With Sebastião Salgado
By JOHN BOWE
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where these pictures were taken, is a pretty remote place. How did you get there, and how did you get around once you were there?
I came from Paris on a direct flight to Seattle, and then to Fairbanks, which is a big town inside Alaska along the Chena River. Helicopters are restricted in the wilderness area of the refuge. Planes are allowed, real small planes with very special pilots. These guys can land in airstrips you cannot imagine. They are not real airstrips — it is some place in the middle of nature. It is a real skill with small, small planes.
What kind of planes are those?
My pilot, Kirk Sweetsir, had an old 185 Cessna, and this kind of plane has no wheels in front. They have two wheels under the wings and one small wheel in back of the plane. These kinds of planes are much more rustic kinds of planes. With these pilots that spend all their life there, they know where to put these wheels.
Where did you first touch down to begin the trip into the refuge?
With the small plane, the first place we came to was a place called Kaktovik. If you look at a map, it appears as Barter Island. But the Eskimo name is Kaktovik. From Kaktovik, I traveled with one guy, an Eskimo. A friend of mine told me that was the guy I must travel with. He knows the whole refuge. He lives there. He was born there. His name is Robert Thompson; his mother is Eskimo, and his father was of Irish extraction.
Did you set up camp in Kaktovic and work from there?
Actually the pilot would collect us in the morning from Kaktovik and take us across a river, called Hulahula River. It’s a wrong impression that you are in Hawaii, believe me, you are in Alaska. We decided to spend ’’more than a week there. We climbed all these hills; it’s the most fabulous place, one of the most fabulous places in all my life.
What did you take with you? Did you need special equipment?
We carried all of our camping equipment ourselves. I had a small tent Robert gave me that I believe was a North Face tent. It was a very low tent because there is a lot of wind in this area. It’s not a big tent — just for one person and a sleeping bag.
There are four rivers we had to cross with a small inflatable rubber boat. We also brought a lot of ropes for climbing, though we didn’t need them in the end.
I must also have, of course, my photographic equipment. That part of it is very well prepared. I have two very nice solar panels to charge my batteries. During the day I leave one of them charging, and in the evening I charge all my batteries.
But the survival material is also very important. I need to have a very good sleeping bag. I must carry very, very good shoes. I use one American sandal called Keens. They are very good. With them, I can cross the river. It’s more important for a photographer to have very good shoes than to have a very good camera. Because you walk a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot!
What did you eat?
The most important thing for me is to have my cereal. I have milk and granola and cheese. And that’s it. I have a lot of cereals that I eat all day long, and I have a big appetite. All over the planet I carry my cereals!
But did you hunt or fish to supplement your cereal diet?
Robert was a very good fisherman. We had always VERY nice fish. Robert I tell you — I live in France, and we have very good food — but Robert was the best cook I ever had in North America. He was a real, real good cook. Very good fish. It was fabulous! We had an incredible life there.
How far did you travel on any given day?
Robert would show me the way, and I would go in front, and then he arrives two or three hours later. Some days we climbed more than half a mile, to photograph, before coming back to the camp.
Your arrival in Alaska was timed to coincide with the migration of the caribou to the coastal plains in May and June. How did you track them down?
In the refuge, the caribou come from the Porcupine River in Canada. There’s a small plane that looks at where they are. Once a week we would get information on where the caribou are. Once we saw they were close to the caribou pass, our pilot, Kirk, came to collect us and put us there.
We were there, waiting, for nearly two weeks, before they finally arrived. One day the caribou just appeared. A lot of them, really a lot of them. And there we took our photographs. And one day they disappeared. All the caribou. They went north. Then Kirk came to collect us again. Robert explained to me that we were going to the highlands. It’s a big, big group of caribou. And it was much more complicated because the plane had to be much lighter in order to land. So we had to leave Robert back in Kaktovik.
So did you stay by yourself?
I stayed alone in the place where he told me the caribou would return. I stayed there alone for about 10 days That was fabulous. I was alone with these caribou. I was a little bit afraid about the polar bears, because I’m very scared of bears. I worked on a shoot in Russia, and the bears there killed two photographers. I’m very afraid of bears. These guys are not tame. But with thousands of caribou, I thought, Well, they are looking at caribou and not me probably, because there are much more caribou than humans! Just one, only one!
Do you always travel alone?
Most of the time, when I make these trips, my wife comes with me for at least part of the time. She is my big companion. When I was in northern Ethiopia, I walked about 600 kilometers; she met me and she walked with me for 250 kilometers more. But for this trip, she couldn’t come, because of the weight limitation of the plane. So what I really missed was my family. I have two children. I have a Down syndrome child whom I love very much, and my wife that I love.
Did you run into any disasters, any unforeseen complications?
The complicated thing with this Alaska trip was the weather. We were in front of this very cold mass of weather coming from the Arctic and very hot air coming from inside Alaska. This air came to be very hot in this time of year. So we had a meeting of these big opposites weather over the Arctic refuge, and sometimes it made the weather very complicated. Sometimes we could not shoot 2 to 3 days the place because it was not possible.
On some days, it was minus 11 degrees. Even in May, June and the beginning of July. Sometimes it was difficult to get water in the morning because the water was completely ice until 11 o’clock, when it become a little more liquid.
On other days, it was hot. But because of this, there were very few mosquitoes. In this temperature there were only two, three days that I had the mosquitoes, and that was the really hell. But the majority of the time was too cold for the mosquitoes.
What’s the best thing about Alaska, photographically speaking?
The light in Alaska in particular is so beautiful. So beautiful! Such incredible light. The project was photographed all in black and white. And when I have shapes in the sky, when there are incredible clouds, you know, with this shock of weather, this very hot weather fighting against the very cold weather all over these highlands there, you have most daring fight with half the snow, half the rain, half the sunshine, all this light, mixed inside the pictures. I was incredibly lucky. It was a photographer’s paradise.
Some people will no doubt look at these pictures and be reminded of Ansel Adams’s black and white work in Yosemite, or even, in a way, Edward Curtis’s documentation of American Indians.
I know Ansel Adams’s work, and Edward Curtis’s work, and I’m a big fan. When I started this project, I had never photographed animals or landscapes. But when I began, I saw that there is an identity, a personality in the landscape. There is a way to the trees and the animals. And it was for me a big, big, big change to discover this. When you go back to the work of Adams and Curtis, it seems that they also discovered this. When Curtis made pictures of the American Indians, I think he was doing two things. He was making a cross section of an era that was disappearing. And he was making a gift for them.
When I started the Genesis Project, I had the impression that most of the planet had gone. When I started doing my research, I discovered the incredible diversity of place on this planet. There are a lot of, lot of pristine places on the planet. You have a lot of tropical forests. On most land over 3,000 meters high, there is no development. These places are still like they were.
What is your next big photographic project?
I’m 67 years old. I will finish this project when I’m 70. Of course I will continue photography. I love photography. But when you become old, it’s too much. For one of the Genesis stories, I walked 850 kilometers in 55 days. I know probably it’s my last big, nice, long-term project. I hope not, but probably it is.