Sebastião Salgado: Genesis

Waterhouse Gallery, Natural History Museum, London 11 April to 8 September 2013

The celebrated Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado is best known for his black-and-white images of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, shot in 1986. Those stark photographs of mud-encrusted workers toiling through the labyrinthine open mine workings highlighted the appalling working conditions. Now, after decades of social observation, Salgado has turned his lens on the environment, to convey how its degradation has led to much of the inequity he has recorded.

Waura tribesmen fish in the Piulaga lake near their village in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil's Mato Grosso state. Credit: SEBASTIÃO SALGADO/AMAZONAS IMAGES/NBPICTURES

Genesis is a project eight years in the making — the culmination of journeys across 32 countries to document remote ecosystems and local peoples whose survival now hangs by a thread. The 250 photographs on show at London's Natural History Museum are part of a portfolio that is touring venues around the world. Salgado calls his new work Genesis because he wanted to record “the animal species that have resisted domestication” and the “remote tribes whose 'primitive' way of life is largely untouched”. He hopes that by highlighting this “uncontaminated world” he can help it to be preserved and, where degraded, restored. His vision is that development need not be synonymous with destruction.

The images include breathtaking vistas across Siberian wastes, in verdant Amazonian forested valleys, over the haunting Namibian dune fields and among the animals at home in the harsh beauty of Antarctica. He spent time with local peoples, including the Xingu in the upper Amazon, the Bushmen in Botswana and the Dinkas in Sudan. There are striking records of daily life: foraging, making fires, preparing food, socializing and sharing ritual celebrations.

Salgado provides no contrasting images of the globalized world, dominated by urban expansion and the conversion of natural land for burgeoning infrastructure, transportation, extraction and agro-forestry. Nor, in hymning the intrinsic beauty of wilderness, does he draw attention to those regions' wider value as vital 'organs of the biosphere', contributing to the planet's regulatory system. There is instead a nostalgia for a halcyon disappearing world — worthy and understandable, but saying little about the broader imperative to protect global wilderness and biodiversity.

Similar issues cloud the portraits. Salgado spent time with the people he recorded, and the images were taken with their consent. Yet his photographs of proud people seem to be coloured by the Arcadian ideals of the late eighteenth century — a vision of 'noble savages' populating an Eden somehow preserved from the ravages of civilization. In part because of the likeness of the black-and-white images to old sepia photographs, I found myself reminded of colonial and ethnographic photographic archives.

Today, our understanding of indigenous peoples is more nuanced. Even though they may be profoundly culturally adapted to their environments, their 'sustainable' lifestyles often come at a price, such as high child mortality or relatively short lifespans. And whereas many indigenous cultures are seriously threatened by outside forces, many are increasingly proactive in fighting for their traditional and customary rights to the land, and are adopting new ideas and technologies on their own terms.

For example, in Brazil, the Kaxinawá live in the state of Acre in the western Amazon, where forest covers 88% of the land but indigenous groups control only 1.5% of it. Kaxinawá elders are working with the state government to ensure official recognition of and compensation for their traditional stewardship of the forests. In Ecuador, the Huaorani, whose lands are under threat from logging and oil interests, are using geographic information system technology and traditional knowledge to map areas for potential tourism and conservation, creating a community resource for planning and negotiating. There is nothing of this side of the story in Genesis.

Salgado spends time on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, home to one of the most biodiverse forest ecosystems in the world, the highly threatened Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica), of which only small fragments survive. With his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick, Salgado has been restoring a denuded 630-hectare site near Aimorés by planting trees and reintroducing other species. They have also founded the Instituto Terra, an initiative that supports the environmental education of Brazilian officials, teachers and farmers, and aims to show that it is possible to restore environments that seemed lost forever.

Although Genesis brings into sharp focus the need to preserve both the wilderness and the well-being of the peoples relying on it, the role of the outside world is more ambiguous. Both the Atlantic Forest project and the exhibition are supported by the Brazilian multinational Vale, based in Rio de Janeiro, one of the biggest construction and mining companies in the world. Its website states that “it is committed to quality of life and environmental preservation”. However, some indigenous peoples and human-rights groups oppose Vale's stakes in major dam and mining projects in the Amazon interior.

If Genesis gets people to reconsider the value of the disappearing wild, it will have achieved an important aim. If it promotes discussion on the plight of indigenous peoples, their self-determination and their potential as stewards of wilderness crucial to our future, it will have offered an invaluable revelation. But however visually stunning and moving these images are, to me they reduce the complex realities for local people and remote environments of our changing world to black and white, rather than shades of grey.