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Review: Amazon exhibition at Somerset House

Ruth Styles

18th November, 2011

Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson’s work offers a compelling insight into a threatened way of life, says The Ecologist's Green Living Editor Ruth Styles

The statistics are shocking. Three football pitch sized areas of pristine Amazon rainforest are lost every minute thanks to logging and the land grabs of local farmers. That’s over a million acres per day. What’s more, industrial scale deforestation is responsible for a staggering 15 percent of global emissions – more than ship, air and car transport combined. But worst of all, deforestation – both in the Amazon and elsewhere – is taking an unacceptable toll on biodiversity and indigenous peoples. Malaria, a non-native disease introduced via human exploration, has killed an estimated 20 per cent of the Yanomani tribe in the Amazon Basin, while at least 26 bird and animal species have been lost altogether thanks to habitat loss and poaching. And it’s statistics such as these that make Somerset House’ new Amazon exhibition all the more poignant, focusing, as it does, on the little that’s left.

Featuring the work of two photographers, Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson, the exhibition offers a pictorial insight into the contemporary realities of the Amazon Basin. Salgado’s works concentrating on the lives of the Alto Xingu and Zo’é tribes are strangely depressing; depicting a threatened way of life in stark black and white. The images are wonderful but their beauty is overshadowed by the precariousness of a lifestyle under threat from the modern world. In some respects, the photos resemble Gauguin’s Tahitian works, with the last gasp of a fading way of life held up for all to marvel at. The stunning aerial shot of the Anavilanhas archipelago in the Negro River is epically beautiful but like its human inhabitants, it is also endangered. The stark beauty of the photos, bringing the tribes’ harmonious relationship with their surroundings into clear focus, is in many ways, an early epitaph for a dying culture and a dying landscape.

By contrast, Pettersson’s work looks at the charity and conservation efforts being made to protect the region’s people, plants and animals in eye-wateringly bright colour. If Salgado’s work is a hauntingly beautiful tribute, Pettersson’s photos are a technicolour documentary looking at the efforts being made by locals with a little help from the WWF, Sky Rainforest Rescue and celebrity champion, Gemma Arterton. ‘This trip gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the work that is being done first hand and help showcase it,’ comments Pettersson in the exhibition guide. The Swede’s collection is almost relentlessly upbeat, with plenty of shots of smiling locals, wild rubber tapping in action and one of Arterton staring wistfully out the window of a plane. Some are irritatingly cheesy – how many times have we seen images of celebs getting involved with locals only to return home and carry on as usual – but many others have real power and slam home the message that many of us miss: without getting local people on side, conservation can’t happen. It’s to the WWF and Sky Rainforest Rescue’s credit that they have recognised this and are directing much of their efforts at the forest’s human occupants.

It’s almost ironic that an exhibition called Amazon – a name that conjures up mental images of a wild, untouched world – should focus so much on people. But then, it’s people who are the real story in the Amazon, whether good or bad. The driving force behind its destruction is human behaviour but those who stand to lose the most are people too, whether the indigenous tribesmen or our children who face a future without forests. Despite the stark white environs of the gallery, Amazon is an oddly interactive experience, shedding light on the realities of life in the Amazon basin and allowing you to come to some sort of understanding of what’s really happening. It can be an uncomfortable experience, but it’s also uplifting – particularly in Pettersson’s case – and leaves you with plenty of food for thought. Ultimately, unless something is done to stop the mind-boggling amount of daily destruction, one day these photos will be nothing more than a testament to a lost world. It can only be hoped that the exhibition, and the conservation charities backing it, will be able to create enough awareness to save at least some of it.

Amazon is open daily from 10am to 6pm until 4th December 2011 at the East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2. Admission is free. For more information, see www.somersethouse.org.uk

 

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