I first read about Léila Wanick Salgado in a 2014 interview with her by Latin Correspondent discussing the exhibition, Genesis, which she had concepted and curated over a period of more than a decade with her husband and creative partner, the documentary photographer, Sebastião Salgado. As an antidote to the horrific subjects that Sebastião had witnessed and photographed during the 1980s and 90s whilst chronicling famine, wars and other harrowing human experiences, the couple decided to focus on the beauty in the world, as Sebastião stated, “What is still pristine, to show what we must hold and protect.”
Léila has made Paris her home since the early 1970s but regularly returns to her home country of Brazil, which is where, in an attempt to continue to “hold and protect” the world, she had the idea to replant the Atlantic Rainforest, one of the most vulnerable forests in the world having been deforested to less than 15% of its original size. In under 20 years, she and her team have planted more than two million trees and established Instituto Terra, an environmental organisation dedicated to sustainable development in the area.
In the Latin Correspondent article, Léila responded to the adage that the wives of many successful men are presented with – behind every great man, there is a great woman – with what I consider the perfect answer. “I don’t agree with that,” she said. “She’s not behind him. She’s by his side. Next to him. We have to very clear about that.”
Immediately, I wanted to learn more about her and her life but despite her successful career working both at the side, and independently, of her husband, media interest has focused on Sebastião. There was nothing left to do but ask her the questions I wanted to know her answers to…
“We were young, at the beginning of adult life; at this time of life we do not fear anything, we are sure that everything is possible.”
Tell us about your childhood and life before Sebastião.
I was born and grew up in a small town of 120,000 inhabitants. It is on an island, very beautiful. Our favourite entertainments were swimming and sailing. In parallel to normal academic school education I studied piano, musical theory and French language at the Alliance Française. I had a very happy teenagehood. I come from a large family, with eight children at home, I am the youngest.
You moved to London in 1971, what was your experience of the city?
Sebastião was employed by the International Coffee Organization and at this time I was an architecture student in Paris. Because it was impossible to find a school in London, I continued to study in Paris, going back to London for two weeks each month and following English language courses.
London was a nice city but it was difficult to make friends there. I suffered a lot with the weather, it was always raining and I missed the light.
You encouraged Sebastião to move away from his career as an economist to become a photographer – did you have any understanding of the direction you were moving your lives in with this decision?
Yes, I encouraged Sebastião to change career; he was not happy as an economist and very happy with a camera in his hands. We were young, at the beginning of adult life; at this time of life we do not fear anything, we are sure that everything is possible. Of course we did not know anything about the future but we were willing and eager to move ahead.
The first photograph Sebastião ever took was of you. Which is your favourite of his images?
It is difficult for me to name only one favourite image; my emotion when looking at an image depends on my feelings at that moment.
In 1973, you were pregnant with Juliano and travelling with Sebastião while he was photographing women who were pregnant and starving in Niger. What were the differences and parallels in the experience you shared with these women?
It is true; I was pregnant, expecting Juliano. It was difficult to see so many people suffering of starvation, especially pregnant women. The difference between them and me was that I was there for a short time and they, for life.
Before the birth of your son, you would regularly travel with Sebastião on his photography trips, how was life once you remained at home without him?
I made a lot of trips with Sebastião, even after Juliano was born; we brought him with us. But those trips were only when I could get away from my studies and after my work. The rest of the time I was in Paris, doing my own life. Of course I had to assume all the responsibilities alone, but I never asked him to stay or to come back.
“Finding an envelope in the mailbox was always a very happy moment. We have kept those letters until today.”
What was the longest time period Sebastião was away for? How was the long-distance relationship when there was no internet, sometimes no telephone, both for you as a couple and your creative collaborations?
I think it was three months, when he went for the first time to Latin America, and at this time communications were very difficult but we wrote letters. Sebastião would give an address in a city which he was going through and where he was sure of returning to. Finding an envelope in the mailbox was always a very happy moment. We have kept those letters until today. Letters were nice because you could read them again and again and each time, according to the way you felt at that moment, understand them in a different way.
You left Brazil in 1969, during the authoritarian military dictatorship – how was it leaving your home and were you aware at the time of how long it would be until you returned?
The beginning of the military dictatorship was in 1964. 1968 was a very difficult year because the police were arresting lots of people; they were tortured, killed.
We were part of the student movement against the dictatorship and we took the decision to leave the country and go to France to study. It is very difficult to migrate and to try to adapt your life inside the life of a foreign country. For me, it was very sad because I h d just lost my parents; they died. Coming to Europe, it was losing lots of sentiments: family, food, sun… At the beginning we came with the idea of staying four years, after that we stayed until today.
When you returned, how had Brazil changed?
When we could go back to Brazil it was in 1979, the year of the amnesty. The country was changed, the people were no longer afraid of the police; they were in the streets asking for democracy!
Sebastião and I were changed too, we had two sons, the youngest was then four months old, and he was born with Down’s syndrome, we had to accept these differences.
“Life is no different now, the same problems are not only still current but have even increased.”
Describe the creative process between yourself and Sebastião. How involved are you in the planning and research process for each project?
We are associates; we discuss the subjects to photograph together. Next there is research to find the places to go, and the organisation of the trips, most of which I take part in. It is a good way to understand the matter, to put myself inside the subject, so it is easier for me to help edit, to do the sequencing, the layout, etc. We work well together. We have a lot of respect for the work of each other.
And once Sebastião returns with his images, how do you begin to curate them into an exhibition or book?
When Sebastião returns from a trip, he edits the contact sheets alone and our printer makes small work prints. Then Sebastião together with Françoise, our collaborator, do the first edit of the work prints. Once this is done, I join them and we do a tighter edit. Our lab technician makes bigger prints of this selection, it is easier to then work on the final choice, which will be printed in 30 by 40 centimetre format; it is from these that we choose for the books and the exhibitions.
At the time of designing the books and the shows, I work alone, conceiving the design, the sequencing of the images and their size.
You were the driving force behind the project Exodus considering the ongoing global refugee crisis, what lessons should we have learnt from that period?
The subjects come to our minds always from what is going on in the world. At this time we were reading a lot about rural people migrating to the big cities in the developing countries; about Africans coming to work in Europe and refugees fleeing wars. Sebastião was photographing some horrible events that had occurred, such as the genocide in Rwanda and the war in former Yugoslavia, that were throwing millions of people onto the roads.
Unfortunately the lessons that we have learnt from that period of time are that life is no different now, the same problems are not only still current but have even increased.
Exodus, along with another of your and Sebastião’s projects, Sahel, directed global attention and response to extreme human suffering. Today images such as these do not seem to elicit the same response – do you think we have become desensitised?
No, I don’t think so. The images continue to affect people. Today with the enormous quantity of images made with telephones and displayed on Facebook, we have the feeling that people want to see only nice and happy pictures, but it is not true, people are as sensitive as before.
In 1998 you started replanting the Atlantic rainforest. What inspired this incredible undertaking?
As I said before, it took many years before we were able to return to Brazil and when we went to Sebastião’s family farm, we saw such a difference; most of the forest had disappeared and each year it was worse. In the 1990s, Sebastião’s parents began to be quite old and proposed to us to buy the land, which we did, to please them, but we did not know what to do with it. Of course, Sebastião’s father continued to manage the farm and in general we were only there for Christmas time, which is the rainy season. In a tropical zone, rain is very strong and the water would come from the top of the hills at a very high speed, carrying away with it all the good soil, leaving erosion everywhere.
Lélia with husband, Sebastião Salgado, in Spain, 1986. © Claude Nori
One day, being there, looking at this immense wasted land and thinking on how to recuperate it, I had an idea, to plant a forest, the forest that 70 years ago was there, Mata Atlantica. At that moment I just thought of planting ourselves, with our hands; however, developing the idea, it was clear that it was necessary to structure a project, guiding on which plants to use and how to plant. We did this, and today Instituto Terra exists and we have already planted more than two million trees. A baby forest started to grow and keeps growing up.
The theme of your most recent project, Genesis, is the environment; is this a priority for you both now?
With the activities at Instituto Terra, environment began to take an important place in our lives. Genesis was the natural next step and we wanted to contemplate what was still pristine in our planet.
What is the proudest achievement of your life so far?
I am proud of the choices I made in my life; when at times I had to fight for my ideas, I did. Now, looking back, I am proud because I practised my profession giving the best of myself. I was always beside my husband to try to make our lives grow. Our sons are doing very well. Juliano leads his life with courage and he is a very good father. Rodrigo, born with Down’s syndrome, is very independent, he does very nice paintings.
The Instituto Terra is also a reason for me to be proud. Co-creating an institution which in 15 years came to major results; people visit to learn about ecology, more than two million trees are growing and for the last two years now we have been developing a programme of recuperation of all of the 340,000 water sources of the Doce River. It is the most important river in the region and was near to death.
You are still so active and engaged in your work; what inspires you?
I don’t see myself stopping work; there are so many interesting things to do. We have only one life, so we must use it to accomplish our desires.