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In the lush Amazon, a photographer hopes to document life before it is too late

Clump of jauari palm trees (<em>Astrocaryum jauari</em>) on the banks of the Jaú River. Jaú National Park, State of Amazonas, 2019.
Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
Clump of jauari palm trees (Astrocaryum jauari) on the banks of the Jaú River. Jaú National Park, State of Amazonas, 2019.

Updated November 3, 2022 at 2:45 PM ET

Ed. Note: This story includes photos that show nudity.

When photographer Sebastião Salgado visits tribes in the Amazon, he says the people he meets tend not to be interested in his cameras or his satellite phone: "They were very interested by my knife, 'cause my knife has utility for them," he says.

A native of Brazil, Salgado has made more than 58 trips to Amazonia. His photos depict lush tropical trees, dramatic clouds, the sinuous river, as well as the biodiversity of the jungle. The 78-year-old photographer says he flew with the Brazilian military over some of the most inaccessible areas to capture them with his camera.

His new exhibition of photos, Amazônia, is on view in Los Angeles at the California Science Center. Two big gallery spaces are filled with more than 200 large-scale black and white images that almost seem backlit. Salgado says he shot them, as he always does, using natural light. "I don't know how to use artificial lights," he says.

Aracá State Park. El Dorado Falls and Desabamento Falls. Tepuis are geological mesa formations with sandstone and quartzite soil, and with water plunging down their sides in waterfalls. State of Amazonas, 2019.
/ Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
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Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
Aracá State Park. El Dorado Falls and Desabamento Falls. Tepuis are geological mesa formations with sandstone and quartzite soil, and with water plunging down their sides in waterfalls. State of Amazonas, 2019.

The images are accompanied by an Amazonian soundscape of birds, monkeys, insects, frogs and people's voices, all mixed into music composed for the exhibition by French musician Jean-Michel Jarre.

"It's a beautiful exhibit. The images are enchanting," says Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center.

"You learn a lot about forest, unexpected things about the Amazon. The mountains, the flying rivers," says Rudolph. "The Amazon is a unique system in which it creates its own rain. The trees tap their roots tap as far as 60 meters deep, get water from the system and that water evaporates. By the end of the day, you get these huge clouds and enormous rains."

The rain is so intense in Serra do Divisor National Park that it looks like an atomic mushroom cloud. State of Acre, 2016.
/ Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
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Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
The rain is so intense in Serra do Divisor National Park that it looks like an atomic mushroom cloud. State of Acre, 2016.

In some of the photos, you can see those rain clouds above the canopy of trees, immense waterfalls and misty mountain peaks.

"Amazonia is paradise," says Salgado. "The light is amazing, the clouds amazing, the people amazing."

Women in Zo'é Indigenous Territory, State of Pará. Zo'é women generally use the red fruit of the urucum plant to color their bodies. They also use it in cooking. Urucum is a shrub native to the tropical zones of the Americas. Indigenous Americans have long used it for body painting, especially for painting the lips, hence its nickname: <em>árvore-batom</em> (lipstick tree).
/ Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
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Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
Women in Zo'é Indigenous Territory, State of Pará. Zo'é women generally use the red fruit of the urucum plant to color their bodies. They also use it in cooking. Urucum is a shrub native to the tropical zones of the Americas. Indigenous Americans have long used it for body painting, especially for painting the lips, hence its nickname: árvore-batom (lipstick tree).

Salgado lives in Paris and has traveled to more than 130 countries, capturing images of genocide, starvation, war and natural disasters. But he always returns to Brazil, where he grew up in another rainforest, along the Atlantic.

For years, he and his wife Leliahave worked to restore a portion of the Atlantic Forest. And they created Instituto Terra, a nature reserve and an institute for reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

Salgado has lived with some of the tribes protected by Brazil's National Indian Foundation. "These Indians in the forest, they are integrated with the water, with the soil, with the forest, with the animals," he says. "It's marvelous to be there with them."

Salgado says they would often arrive surrounded by birds and other animals, one big biodiverse family. He says he slept in hammocks next to them and spoke through interpreters.

Bela Yawanawá, from the village of Mutum, with a headdress and painted face. Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, State of Acre, 2016.
/ Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
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Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
Bela Yawanawá, from the village of Mutum, with a headdress and painted face. Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, State of Acre, 2016.

"Once one guy asked me, Sebastião, give me your knife when you go.' I said, 'I cannot give it to you because I cannot corrupt your culture. It is forbidden.' He said, 'OK, but your knife is so important. When you get ready to fly in that small plane, just throw your knife over the forest. I know this forest like the lines of my hand. I can find your knife inside the forest.' "

Salgado didn't leave his knife, but he did set up temporary outdoor studios, draping large black backdrops from the trees. He says he did so to highlight the people and distinguish them from the exuberant forest. He shot many portraits of women and men in elaborate headdresses and face paint, children playing with sloths, families sleeping in hammocks and paddling in dugout canoes in the river.

Salgado says his Amazônia photo exhibition is tied to the indigenous and environmental movements in Brazil. It includes videos of tribal leaders talking about the destruction of the rainforest.

Luísa, daughter of Moisés Piyãko Asháninka, paints herself in the mirror. Kampa do Rio Amônea Indigenous Territory, State of Acre, 2016.
/ Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
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Sebastião Salgado/California Science Center
Luísa, daughter of Moisés Piyãko Asháninka, paints herself in the mirror. Kampa do Rio Amônea Indigenous Territory, State of Acre, 2016.

"They know they are in danger to disappear, that the Bolsonaro government is destroying the forest in a very high speed," says Salgado. "They are desperate to protect the land, and they are using this show to speak about that problem."

Like them, Salgado blames the outgoing Brazilian government for further endangering and eroding the Amazon. "They are real bandits," he says. "What they are doing, not only in Amazonia but elsewhere in Brazil, is a disaster."

The photographer had longed for a new president, and just days ago, Brazilians elected leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Salgado also says he hopes that in 50 years his exhibition Amazônia is not a documentation of a lost forest, a lost indigenous people, or a lost world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.