Sunday, 15 February 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

I have mixed feelings about Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis initiative, said to be the last of his great photographic projects. Described in an interview as a project ‘designed to reconnect us to how the world was before humanity altered it almost beyond recognition', it has sent Salgado on an eight-year quest to capture pristine nature and peoples untouched by modernity. His photographs are stunningly beautiful, and they communicate the importance of the world’s threatened natural and cultural diversity. The UK newspaper The Guardian is running a series of photo essays in its Weekend magazine, and his photographs appear regularly in other publications in Europe. In January 2008, he spent several weeks in Botswana to document the disappearing semi-nomadic lifestyle of the San Bushmen who were forcibly removed from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. An article in the popular French magazine Paris Match (5-11 February 2009) presents twelve photos of the San engaging in hunting and gathering activities at Trail Blazer Farm, where they have taken refuge.

The accompanying text contains some accurate testimony of their environmental knowledge and use of resources. It also conveys some naïve notions about the San (and by extension indigenous peoples in general). The photos appear to be stylized and posed, and they make me wonder if the San Bushmen who participated in the shoot were asked to recreate a lifestyle and even way of dressing that is rarely practiced today. One image of the San drinking rainwater from the ground carries the caption, “just after the cloudburst, they drink like lions”. Depictions of their hunting skills are accompanied by a reference to ‘instinct, cunningness and simple sticks’.

Salgado is quoted as saying that he found himself ‘thousands of years in the past’. These characterizations give the impression that the San are primitive and animal-like. Paris Match makes scant mention of the alcoholism and other social problems that are common among the San and refers only briefly to their dreams of returning to former lifestyle. As beautiful as they are, Salgado’s images seem to inspire romanticism about culture and nature that belies the harsh reality the San and other indigenous peoples are living today.

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