Art and Environmentalism Merge in the Work of Sebastião Salgado

Art and Environmentalism Merge in the Work of Sebastião Salgado

Sotheby’s inaugural Impact Gala and benefit auction will help ensure the transformative reforestation work done by the Instituto Terra — founded by acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado and his family — continues into the future.
Sotheby’s inaugural Impact Gala and benefit auction will help ensure the transformative reforestation work done by the Instituto Terra — founded by acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado and his family — continues into the future.

A project initiated by world-renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado in Brazil is proving that the destruction of nature in the Anthropocene can be reversed, if the right resources and expertise are in place. Such is the devastation caused by climate change, deforestation and loss of biodiversity in recent decades, that it can be hard to see a way back for the planet. However, Instituto Terra — established in 1998 by Salgado and his partner Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, a curator, designer and scenographer — has become a major reference point in the fight against climate change. It has successfully planted more than 2.5 million trees native to Brazil’s Atlantic Forest in deteriorated land on the Salgado cattle farm in Aimorés, Minas Gerais.

The story began when Salgado returned to his family’s land and childhood home in Brazil to find it devastated, the forest of his youth destroyed and the soil sick. “Lélia had the idea to rebuild the forest with native species that were there before. We started planting trees, rehabilitating the soil and our lives, and we became environmentalists in the process,” says 78-year-old Salgado. “We not only planted trees but created a nursery for more than one million seed- lings with more than 100 native species and an educational programme based on what we learned.”

A black and white portrait of a man
Sebastião Salgado. Photo: Renato Amoroso

Staff at the institute learned extensively about the science of replanting. In 1999, the first year of planting, the success rate was 40%; now it is 97%. Salgado’s son Juliano, who has taken over the running of the institute, says: “We have learned to recreate a forest, a very complex ensemble of trees, which is able to renew itself autonomously, forever.”

The idea to bring back the native species of the forest, to preserve biodiversity, was extra challenging in the context of climate change. “What was formerly considered a tropical area has started drying up, and in the course of the past 10 years we have lost more than 40% of rainfall, turning the land into an arid region,” Juliano says. “And we are the only people that we know of that can replant a forest in an arid region. It’s a very specific knowledge, especially when you consider that most of Brazil is getting arid.”

The non-profit project has produced tangible environmental and social impacts that stretch beyond the planting of trees. Instituto Terra has revitalised degraded water springs surrounding the river basin of Brazil’s Doce River, produced an educational programme that trains farmers, elected officials and children in the conservation and restoration of native ecosystems, in addition to innovating in techniques that aid in the reforestation process. Data from the institute shows that within its 600 hectares, more than 250 animal species have returned, including 127 types of bird and 33 species of mammal, among them endangered animals such as the puma.

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) found in RPPN Bulcão Farm, 2012. Photo: Leonardo Merçon

It also works with local communities, teaching more than 80,000 people sustainable practices: how to build roads without damaging water supply and how to revive springs by enriching biodiversity.

“Instituto Terra has improved the quality of life and wellbeing of locals and the biodiversity that they depend on,” says Catherine Almonte, global head of diversity, inclusion and community engagement at Sotheby’s. “The Salgados’ work is rooted in amplifying the communities that are actually impacted; they have really brought it down to a hyper local level.”

Salgado’s remarkable photographic career, which spans nearly 50 years, is just as highly lauded: over the past two years alone, he has been awarded Japan’s Praemium Imperiale and an International Center of Photography Infinity Award, among others, as well as earning an honoury degree from Harvard. It has had its ups and downs: he explains that at the time he launched Insituto Terra, he had just returned from a trip on which he had witnessed genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He was in “a terrible place”, wanting to give up photography. Yet “after seeing the return of the trees, insects, birds and mammals, seeing the lifeforce coming back to the land” at Instituto Terra, he explains, “the wish to return to photography came back.” He was inspired to take a new approach to his art and “tell a story about what’s pristine in our planet”.

“You can’t transform a place without transforming minds. It is a very long process, but it’s profound and extremely effective”

“Lélia and I conceived the Genesis project and we went, at almost 70 years of age, around the planet, and we did 32 stories,” he says. In Genesis, first published in 2013, Salgado kept true to his recognisable black and white aesthetic with its rich silver tones, but now he was photographing nature close up, gorillas and humpback whales, rather than humans.

He also spent seven years making trips to the Amazon region of Brazil, capturing images of people he visited from 12 indigenous communities and the stunning landscapes in which they live – a series that is on view at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum until 21 August. With these projects Salgado felt he could pay tribute to the planet.

The Instituto Terra and Salgado’s photographic work have developed a powerful symbiosis. “Both are borne out of a profound and lifelong dedication to our planet and our humanitarian condition,” says Marlene Taschen, managing director of Taschen, publisher of Salgado’s work. “The institute is the culmination of the Salgados’ lifelong activism; what started as a personal wish to restore their family’s depleted farmland turned into a thriving rainforest, a restored ecosystem, and has grown into a much wider educational and community focused initiative. These initiatives have never been more important or urgent and we are humbled that we can help communicate their message to the world.”

Planting activities at the institute’s nursery, which has a capacity of one million seedlings. Photo: Leonardo Merçon

What’s more, the proceeds from his work have provided one of the main funding sources for the institute. Sebastião and Lélia wish to leave an endowment for the institute to continue to expand its work after they are gone, and with that in mind, they approached Sotheby’s about a collaboration. This autumn, the auction house will hold its inaugural social impact fundraising gala in New York in support of Instituto Terra’s work, along with a selling exhibition of Salgado’s works, and a benefit auction.

For the selling exhibition, Salgado and Lélia selected 50 photos from four main bodies of work, all of them widely known and close to their hearts. This includes photos from the recent series Genesis and Amazônia as well as Salgado’s famed photographs from the Brazilian gold mine Serra Pelada, works from his project in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to set fire to the oil fields in 1991 and images from the projects Other Americas and Sahel. Each will be printed on platinum, “which will make them especially beautiful,” he says.

Sebastião Salgado, El Dorado Falls (background) and Desabamento Falls (foreground), Aracá State Park, state of Amazonas, 2019, from the series Amazonia. © Sebastião Salgado

“Our partnership with Instituto Terra is an important opportunity for Sotheby’s to raise awareness and support for Sebastião and Lelia’s commitment to restore the Brazilian Atlantic Forest,” says Charles Stewart, CEO of Sotheby’s. “They have fully dedicated their resources and energy into planting trees, which stands alongside their artistic achievements as their life’s legacy. We are proud to support them to protect this indispensable, beautiful ecosystem.”

The endowment will pay to expand reforestation and the institute’s nursery to more than double its current capacity, as well as escalating the scope and reach of its educational projects, which are a key component in the long-term vision of restoring biodiversity to the whole region. The institute is also at the cusp of being able to scale up, and teach other farmers in the region revolutionary approaches to agroforestry, such as combining cattle raising with increasing biodiversity. “You can’t transform a place without transforming minds. It is a long process, but it’s profound and extremely effective,” says Juliano.

By drawing upon Instituto Terra techniques, farmers can adopt a sustainable approach to cattle raising that will increase food production. For the couple, this opportunity is momentous. “It means a lot that Sotheby’s is doing this,” says Salgado. “It will reach an audience that we cannot and help guarantee the institute’s survival after we’re gone.”

Sotheby’s Impact Gala supporting Instituto Terra’s work will take place this autumn at Sotheby’s New York. For more information on how to support the event, please email

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Cover image: Sebastião and Lélia Salgado overlooking the land at Instituto Terra in Brazil. Photo: Luiz Maximiano

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