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January/February 2012

In the highlands of northern Ethiopia, the mountains keep insiders in and outsiders out. There is only one main road, and no other access except on foot. For Sebastião Salgado, who took the photographs on these pages, this made it a perfect subject. “I wanted to photograph here because it is isolated,” he says. 

For seven years, Salgado has been working on a vast project called “Genesis”, of which these pictures are a part. He has travelled around the world—to the Galapagos, the Congo, Antarctica—capturing places and lives untouched by modern development. The scale of the project is typical of him. Since the 1970s, when he took up photography after a brief career as an economist, he has specialised in long-term reportage in black and white. “Migrations”, a photo essay capturing people on the move begun in 1993, took him six years to complete. It had 44 international exhibitions, including at the United Nations in New York and the Barbican in London. He has won umpteen awards, but has never focused so intensely on landscapes, as he does here. Born on a farm in Brazil in 1944, he feels “Genesis” is returning him to his own origins. “If I’d been smart”, he says, “this would have been the first project I ever worked on in my life. But it was necessary for me to do all the others to realise I had to do this one.” 

In October 2008, Salgado set out from Lalibela, a town known as a place of pilgrimage, on a 55-day walk. He was accompanied by a guide, a local assistant and a phalanx of 18 donkeys and their owners—“when you hire a donkey here, you hire its owner too.” Also in the party were two armed guards, one carrying a Kalashnikov, the other a rifle from the second world war. From Lalibela they walked north-west towards the Simien mountains, covering more than 800 kilometres. It was exhausting—five of the donkeys died, “a big, big drama” – but exhilarating. “You have your destiny in your hand,” Salgado says. “You can go where you want. You don’t have any restrictions.” He was also moved by the hospitality he encountered. “We were received like you can’t imagine. We would arrive in the villages, and they would invite me to sit down. They took off my shoes, washed my feet. Now this is a big sign of humility.” After two weeks, he decided that the guards were more provocation than protection, and sent them home.

Walking was invaluable. “Photographing a landscape is no different to photographing a human,” says Salgado. “You must respect the landscape, integrate with the landscape, with everything that gives volume to the landscape.” The result is a powerful geological drama. In his shot of the Tekeze river, slicing its way through a gorge 300 metres deep, the top of the bluff is set high in the composition, an implacable obstacle, flat as a ruler. On foot he found the vertiginous perspectives that give these pictures their grandeur. When he talks of “my greys, my middle-tones”, his voice softens, as if they were children to be coaxed to their potential. “When I photograph a landscape”, he says, “I need to have a sky, I need to have a special light.” In these pictures the sun bursts like a benediction. 

The title “Genesis” carries an obvious religious load, but Salgado distances himself vehemently from the association. “No, no, no, I am talking only about origins.” But if there’s anything in the first book of the Bible that he might hold to, it is that when it comes to the earth we are obliged “to dress it and to keep it”. In a valley outside Lalibela, he captured fastidiously cultivated fields multiplying countlessly into the distance. The care that the people put into them impressed Salgado, who created a nature reserve himself in Brazil in 1998. “It is very intensive agriculture,” he says, “but they have their way of resting the land.” 

At 67, he says that “Genesis” is likely to be his last large-scale work. But when he adds “I am discovering photography again, I am discovering new pleasure in my work,” it’s a little hard to believe him. ~ SIMON WILLIS

“People in this part of Ethiopia often live with their cattle in their houses. It can get very cold—one day during our walk it was -7°C. The heat from the cattle makes the houses quite comfortable”

“The landscape is like the Grand Canyon, created by huge erosions over millions of years. Some of the valleys are 1,500 metres deep”

“The landscape here has a big personality, a big dignity. If you give special attention to the landscape, it gives something back to you”

“The river is also called the Door of the Simiens. We were at the lowest point of our trip—1,100 metres above sea-level—when I saw the mountains in the distance, and they were still 10 or 15 days’ walk away”

“When we arrived in a village, we would find a guy who knew at least two villages in front of us to be our guide. He would accompany us to those villages. Then he would go back and we would go on”

“Almost everyone who lives here works in agriculture. They live as they did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.” The birds are white-collared pigeons 

“Before I got there”, says Salgado, “I heard a lot of people who specialise in Ethiopia saying, ‘You’ll find a lot of starvation up there. Most of the starving in Ethiopia come from these highlands.’ That’s a supposition. When I walked through it, I discovered a huge area of traditional agriculture and production, very well done, very well worked out”