When God Created the World

According to Genesis, God created the world in seven days. Sebastião Salgado completed Genesis, his project about the world, in eight years.

Lélia Wanick Salgado, who curatored the project said, “Genesis….. is a journey to the landscapes, seascapes, animals and peoples that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world. And it is testimony that our planet still harbours vast and remote regions where nature reigns in silent and pristine majesty”.

This is the third long-term world project that Salgado has completed. The others are Workers, six years in the making and Migrations, which was done over a seven year time period. To understand and complete a major project like those of Salgado, you need to devote a great deal of time; time to research, network and involve yourself so that you have a deep appreciation of the subject matter you are dealing with. “When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects”, claimed Sebastião Salgado in an interview with Ken Lassiter on Photographer’s Forum. http://www.amazonasimages.com/grands-travaux

Jennette Williams worked for eight years on her project, The Bathers. She travelled from her home in New York to Hungary and Turkey a number of times so she could photograph young and old women in the bathhouses. Many of the women are naked but seem at ease revealing their bodies as they float, shower and gossip in the hot, steamy, tiled rooms. The subjects are people from no particular section of society. The unadorned flesh of these factory workers, managers, teachers and students glows in the quiet, dignified, black & white prints that Williams produced. To achieve this expose Williams had to be trusted by the women. Therefore, she invested time and energy getting to know her subjects. She also worked in the nude for much of the time when not needing pockets to carry her film. http://library.duke.edu/exhibits/williams/

There is no quick or easy way to create intimate images; you have to invest time before people will allow you to see them as they really are.

For much of his life Josef Koudelka has lived the life of a nomad “For 17 years I never paid any rent. Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.” Koudelka worked with the Gypsies for nine years, produced a book, Gypsies and then returned to shoot more images because he found the topic endlessly fascinating.

Koudelka began his work as photographer almost seventy years ago and is best known for four photographic projects, Gypsies, Exiles, Invasion 68 and Chaos. Into each of these projects he has invested vast parts of his life. In fact, if you divide up the time he spent taking pictures for the four books, it roughly spans out to fifteen year’s work on each project.

Koudelka describes his spartan life when working, “I have two shirts that last for three years. I sleep in them. I keep my passport in the top pocket and some money in the other. I wash them in one go and they dry quickly, it’s very simple. I only carry things that are needed – my cameras, film and a spare pair of glasses”, he said. This reductionist approach frees his mind to concentrate solely on the photography. Josef Koudelka/ – Magnum Photos

As you can see from Salgado, Williams and Koudelka, what is needed to complete large projects is total dedication along with enhanced networking skills. Photographing these projects is not always predictable. More often than not you get to a location and it’s not what you imagined or what you wanted it to be. Getting to places is often difficult; sometimes people change their mind and don’t want to be photographed.

On one occasion, after spending weeks trying to obtain a visa, I flew half way round the world for an assignment only to find that the government had changed its mind about letting me visit their country. This is not the only time I have encountered problems of this sort. I’ve also seen colleagues distraught, arguing and pleading with government minders as they attempt to navigate bureaucratic barriers; sometimes left with large expenses and no images to show for the time they’ve spent away from home.

It’s often more convenient to stay at home and work on a long-term project in your own environment. Irish photographer Tom Woods spent eighteen years traveling to work on buses in Liverpool, England. Over that period he shot three thousand rolls of film and from these images produced a book titled, All Zones Off Peak. Known to the locals affectionately as “Photie Man”, Woods managed to capture the daily grind of commuting to and from work. Over the duration of the project the vision of the city changed from a trashed and litter strewn environment to a place that people cared about. Woods images began as gritty black & white pictures but he gradually changed to shooting pictures in colour as the city took on a more positive and vibrant feeling.

Photographer Ragnar Axelsson has spent thirty years documenting the vanishing Arctic communities. During his treks in Greenland he has drifted out to sea on ice, fallen through rifts and walked through glacial storms. To achieve the images he produced for his book THE LAST DAYS OF THE ARCTIC he went to Greenland at least twenty times. Over three decades working in the Arctic he has managed to see and capture the effects of global warming and to photograph the last of the northern nomadic hunters. Thirty years working on one project is quite a major achievement but the quality of Axelsson’s images shows once more that time, patience and persistence, no matter how tough the conditions, is well and truly worthwhile. http://www.rax.is/Index.htm

My projects have also been a long time in the making. But, to date, nothing like the thirty years embarked on by Axelsson or the approximately seventeen years per story that Koudelka put into his work. My work in Iran went on for nearly nine years as I documented the results of the Islamic Revolution. The images I put together for the book, Second Spring – Regeneration of the Jesuits, took more than four years to complete. My book of environmental portraits, A World of Australians was photographed over a period of three years. For the last seven years I have been documenting the changing lives of villagers around the world and I sense that I have a long way to go before achieving my goal with regard to that particular project.

The common link these documentary photographers have in addition to the time they are prepared to dedicate to their projects and the personal discomfort they are willing to endure is the relationships and respect they have with and for the people they photograph.

It might take seven days to make the world but takes a hell of lot longer to document it!