Only when the trees have been counted and the foliage
leaf by leaf brought to the ministries
will we know what the earth was worth.
Diving into rivers full of water
and picking cherries on a morning in June
will be a privilege, for the very few.
We will happily recall the used-up world,
back when time mingled
with monsters and angels, when the sky
was an open exhaust for the smoke
and birds flew over the highway in swarms
(we stood in the garden, and our conversations
held back time, the dying of the trees
fleeting legends of nettle weeds).
Shut up. Another earth, another house.
(A hawk's wing in the cupboard. A leaf. A water.)
This poem by Christoph Meckel from 1974 was what came to mind when I first saw the work of Sebastião Salgado. His breathtaking black-and-white photographs tell the story of the destruction of the Earth, the subjugation of the planet by humankind, the pollution of the environment, the plight of migrants, the exodus from rural areas, the massive expulsion and displacement of peoples. The brutal impact of this destruction affects those who are already among the most disadvantaged but also those who had lived undiscovered and undisturbed by the rest of the world until then.
Both the poet Meckel and the photographer Salgado portray the fragility of the world in their own way. Indeed, poetry and black-and-white photography have much in common, and no one has mastered the latter as much as Sebastião Salgado. While poetry condenses language and reduces it to the essential, in black-and-white photography, the play of light and shadow is everything, the abstraction. Both of these art forms are able to suspend time, which is the very reason why they touch us so deeply.
For the first time ever, the Börsenverein has decided to honour a photographer with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade – a photographer whose subjective perspective is comparable more to that of a man of letters than to a reporter. Sebastião Salgado never sought out a scandal or cast a casual glance at the world. His reportages are always long-term projects. He has been a witness to horrific crimes and destruction. He documented the genocide in Rwanda and the oil fires in Kuwait. He portrayed human beings fleeing hunger and war, exploitation and natural disasters. His collections of photographs tell of a human race that has arrived in the modern era and is now feeling the full force of the consequences of globalisation – a humanity that is on the brink of depriving itself of the very basis of its own existence.
With his most recent project, »Genesis«, Salgado set out in search of the last untouched regions on planet Earth. He succeeds in bringing the beauty of the planet closer to us. His images of the Galapagos Islands, with their rare animals and indigenous plants, his studies on indigenous peoples who continue to live unscathed by our civilisation, his breathtaking photographs of Papua-New Guinea and Africa, his images of South Sudan and the Sahara, his journeys through the »Old Testament«, as Salgado calls his expedition through Ethiopia, his travels to the Arctic, Siberia and Latin America – all of these document a largely untouched natural world, and the inhabitants of the areas acquire a force that we viewers cannot resist. We all know that these miracles will be doomed for destruction if humanity does not wake up, if we continue to see ourselves as the rulers of the world rather than as part of a fragile whole that must be preserved.
Alexander von Humboldt was born 250 years ago, and he himself was also a world explorer and cosmopolitan, an observer and analyst, examining the earth like very few before or after him. Even back then, Humboldt realised that everything in nature is connected to and dependent upon one another. Sebastião Salgado stands in Humboldt’s humanistic tradition when he warns us of the dangers associated with human intervention in the processes of nature: »More than ever before, I am convinced that human beings are one. [...] They flee from wars to avoid death, they emigrate in search of a better fate, they rebuild their lives in foreign countries, they adapt to the toughest conditions. Everywhere they go, their primal instinct to survive prevails. Only as a species do we seem to be pursuing our own self-destruction undeterred.«
Sebastião Salgado shows us the whole world, that is, the world damaged by civilisation but also the world that is as yet untouched by civilisation. His photographs also show us that we have a mission to work for the preservation of the planet, to wake up and radically change our ways of life. Only if we make these changes will there be a chance that we can bequeath a liveable planet to the next generations.
There are viable ways to avoid the situation Christoph Meckel warned us of in his haunting poem »Another Earth« – this is yet another thing we learn from Sebastião Salgado. The reforestation and rejuvenation of a large area of land originally belonging to his parents in Brazil – a successful project he and his wife Lélia launched twenty years ago – appears to us as a kind of miracle, especially given the destruction of large parts of the Amazon forest to this day.
Wim Wenders, who will be giving the speech in honour of our prize-winner in a few moments, showed us in his film »The Salt of the Earth« (2014) how a thriving forest could emerge from out of an arid landscape, how dried-up springs could provide water again, how animals could return and how nature could become nature again. But this was no miracle. It was Lélia and Sebastião Salgado, who joined forces with their many helpers to plant almost three million trees. Projects such as the Instituto Terra founded by these two partners give us hope and prove that while sacrifices are important, we must also to take tangible action to undo what we have done to the planet.
The booksellers and publishers that make up the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels see themselves as messengers of Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lélia, and weextend our warmest congratulations to both of them on receiving the 2019 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.