I was at "D'Relish" fundraiser for Theatre @ The Plough on Saturday night, and had the good fortune to hear Eugene O'Brien's fantastic tale of his encounter with William Burroughs while in his early 20's. This reminded me of my chance encounter (it's all about chance encounters really isn't it? Though in my experience they are often about pretty much nothing except maybe the fact that we all happen to be alive on the planet at the same time), with the world's greatest photographer in the Rwandan jungle a few years ago. My mum has been at me to post this story up on my blog (OK Mum, this is for you). Then, out of the blue, today Tim Jarvis, who was with me on that trip gave me a ring. Do you think that was a sign perhaps to post this story? Do you think any thing is a sign? Of anything? Are we just giving the universe too much credit for having intelligence? Or any meaning at all? Anyway, this is a nice story, and was a great day, and a rather funny encounter with one of the greatest genius-photographers walking the same earth as us...
Salgado in the Mist
It was pitch black that Sunday morning as we left Kigali for an exclusive 7.30am date with Diane Fossey’s mountain gorillas. It was expensive too, at $375 US each - this poor freelance journalist would have been left twiddling her thumbs in the Rwandan capital for the day, had Moya & Tim not generously paid for the ticket (thank-you!).
Moya, ‘mystical voice of Clannad’; her husband and manager Tim (and off-duty photographer); Jerry, documentary maker; and PR guy Ultan piled into the van. I hopped in up front with the driver. The roadside soon came alive on our epic journey to the National Volcano Park, where Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo meet, with women appearing and disappearing mirage-like out of the dark into our headlights. Kigali-bound, they were transporting wares on their heads, with all the grace and poise of top models.
We were, frankly, too bleary-eyed to contemplate how one decade earlier, during the genocide we were warned not to mention, this Goma road bore the greatest stream of refugees in Africa’s history. In mass exodus, people fled for their lives, struggling with all the worldly possessions they could carry on their heads, children at their side, desperate for a safe place. Ten years on, the same road was being steamrolled with fresh smoky black asphalt from Germany.
The sun rose suddenly, revealing surprisingly lush Rwandan hills crammed from top to bottom with abundant vegetation: eucalyptus and banana trees, potatoes, avocados.
As the Virunga Volcano Park neared, Moya made sandwiches in the back of the van. Blood sugar levels rose, and the whole world began to take on a wondrous hue.
Once we located the hard-to-get Gorilla HQ, ‘Francois’ our guide, put us into a group of six – us, and one rather pale figure in safari attire from Brazil.
Francois who had worked closely with Diane Fossey, and features in Gorillas in the Mist (we were told later that night), sported a flamboyant skinny purple and yellow hand-knitted scarf wound around his neck a la Dr. Who. Oozing an air of unquestionable authority, he instructed us (we were now standing in a tight circle), to introduce ourselves to the group. Though with the exception of the stranger, we all knew each other, we obeyed without question. ‘Hello, I am Sebastiao from Brazil’, pronounced the unknown man.
Tall-ish, thin-ish, and getting on in years, in hindsight (now that I know who he is) Sebastiao was self-effacing under the brim of his safari hat. Was it a Tilly Endurable, I wondered, at the time. He wasn’t at all swarthy and agile – which was how I imagined Brazilians to be. What brought this unlikely Brazilian here all that way? Was it a ‘trip of a lifetime’ – the fulfilment of a life-long ambition to see the mountain gorillas, inspired maybe by Sigourney Weaver in that movie? Why had he made such a long journey, and all alone? There was something about him, something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was serene maybe, and knowing.
A five-strong ‘military escort’ brandishing serious guns - (well the $375 had to go somewhere), flanked our posse as we headed towards the nearby jungle. All at once we found ourselves surrounded by volcanoes, as promised – : Karisimbi (‘white shell’); Bisoke; Sabyinyo (‘big teeth’); Gahinga; and Muhabura (‘the guide’).
Heading inwards from the clearing into dense jungle undergrowth, we checked our cameras were loaded. I had been frantically photographing in Christian Blind Mission clinics and hospitals for four days now, and felt the weight of documenting the trip. My first photographic assignment, I backed up my brass-bodied manual Nikon FE, with a digital Canon powershot, going for quantity and leaving nothing to chance.
But this was our day of rest. Any photographs were just for fun, so I had left my digital camera at home. I loaded a 1600 ISO film I wanted to experiment with since a trip to India ten months previously. It was originally for sunrise over the Ganges. I was a bit concerned that 1600 was too fast for how bright the Rwandan morning had turned out. Within though, under the thick canopy of jungle greens, it was darker. Unknown to me, Sebastiao was also using a 1600.
The sight of him loading himself up with all sorts of amazing photographic equipment distracted me from the pursuit of gorillas. He screwed mini-tripods onto cameras with massive telephoto and zoom lenses. Later he would balance them on his shoulder and chest. A fascinating photographic machine dangling over his right shoulder prompted me to scurry up beside him (I could resist no more), and comment
‘Nice camera! What is it?’
‘It’s a new format camera, a 45 mm – the shots are wider.’
I took a good long look at it. I then gleaned he was working on an eight-year photographic project called ‘Genesis’, being shot all over the world. So this wasn’t just somebody who had been saving up all his life to come and see Diane Fossey’s Mountain Gorillas after all. I enquired whether he had found a publisher for it yet. As we progressed inwards perfect French, Spanish, and English wafted from his direction as he spoke to others. An international spy on the brink of retiring after a lifetime of international espionage? Now my imagination was really running away with me. I found myself involuntarily eavesdropping, in the noble effort of putting the pieces of this jigsaw together. One sibilant surname did float through my head – alliterating quite poetically with his Christian name. Salgado. As quickly as it surfaced though, I dismissed it. Preposterous!
Penetrating deeper into the jungle, we found our ‘Groupe Sabyinyo’ gorilla-family of nine. As if following an unwritten rule-book, in silence, everybody began elbowing everybody else out of the way in an attempt to capture these dark, magical and, to me, unphotographable beauties. Nonetheless, in a kind of silent dance around these hirsute spirits, we navigated the space around each other, to get up close and personal.
Francois our guide pulled me out of the throng behind which I tended to cower (far too polite), and propelled me to the front. We were the Gorilla paparazzi. Uninhibited by us, the beasts stretched out nonchalantly and scratched their privates. Francois’ hand landed on my shoulder – a hand I felt I could trust completely. I followed unquestioningly, as, turning me around, he gently pushed me in front of… a massive gorilla!
Just as ‘fight or flight’ kicked in, Francois deftly lifted my camera out of my hands, pointed it at me, and click! Terrified, I heard the din of footsteps drawing nearer behind me. What was I afraid of? They are peace-loving vegetarians. Sure enough it was just Gukunda reaching up for another delicious branch of bamboo. I regained my composure and smiled. Click! The last on the reel. It was the nearest I ever got to a me Tarzan you Jane moment. Moya jumped apologetically in for her photo opportunity with Gukunda: ‘Hope you don’t mind, I just saw you getting yours and had to get one too’… Of course I didn’t mind.
Unsure how exactly to metre for dappled jungle undergrowth, I proceeded in good old ‘hit or miss’ style, switching next to a 400 ISO roll.
Our fellow-photographer’s gear kept its hold on me. He sure looked like someone who knew what he was doing. I was glued to the way he positioned himself for a photo – balancing, crouching, lunging. And clicking. We all seemed to be part of an impromptu choreography, dancing around the gorillas, elbowing each other out of the way quasi-courteously but firmly, with unspoken (definitely no speaking allowed!) contact improvisation, configuring ourselves around each sighting. I was surprised to find myself sneaking a couple of surreptitious photos of the Brazilian stranger moving in on his subjects. The sureness, and almost invisibility of how he moved. There was something about him.
All too soon Francois pointed to his watch and signaled that our precious hour with the Sabyinyo’s was up.
Emerging out of the dark thicket of jungle canopy back into the clearing, I caught up with the stranger once more. Knowing it was the last chance to get to the bottom of this story, I struck up yet another casual conversation, I let my stride synch with his, as we headed back towards our starting point. I heard how he had just arrived directly from photographing the ecological wonders of the world in the Galapagos islands to photograph down down down into the volatile Niyragongo crater, and at the astonishing lake below.
‘The colours must be amazing’, I responded to his vivid description. ‘Red, glowing and radioactive?’
‘Yes – but I only photograph in black and white’.
‘Only black and white?! But there are so many amazing colours – especially in lava. Did you ever think of using colour?’
Peering at me from under the brim of his Tilly hat he smiled in Buddha-like fashion before uttering:
‘There are many colours in black and white’.
I smiled back, thinking ‘wow’ – really?
(Apparently I have a terrible habit of saying "wow" too much. But I'll allow myself to be wowed by this one).
‘Well I would definitely use colour for lava!’
Eventually after quite a detailed photographic chat, on the intricacies of how difficult it is to photograph gorillas as they are so dark (Sebastiao agreed, ‘very very hard to photograph’), and it’s hard to get any detail, and the light is so tricky, and comparing ISO’s of film (we both used 1600 – did I mention that?), I enquired:
‘Do you mind me asking you your surname?, I’d love to look out for your book on the internet when it comes out.’
‘My surname is Salgado’.
Salgado. He confirmed it. We were in the presence of a living legend.
‘What?! Sebastiao Salgado? You are Sebastiao Salgado?! Oh my God! Wow! Amazing! We look at your books in my photography class at home in Dublin! I can’t believe you are here with us. Like – don’t you photograph (ok this is embarrassing, but it’s true, I said it), trees? Didn’t you have an exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity?’
‘Trees?’, he responded. ‘No not trees. But I did have an exhibition in Dublin, and unfortunately I could not make it over for it’.
By now the others were waiting for me impatiently for me in the 4WD to go back to Kigali.
I listened to Salgado.
‘My wife and I love Ireland’, he smiled serenely, ‘and have visited many times.’ They are based in Paris. He had been airlifted by a UN helicopter up to the summit of the Nyiragongo with a team of 12 including a military escort. They camped out there for three days, while he took his multi-hued black and white pictures. When he was done, the UN helicopter found them again by Ground Positioning System to airlift them back to base. He was there as UN and UNICEF Ambassador.
I needed to share this with the others, whose impatience was getting all-too tangible. So I called Tim Jarvis over and introduced him to my new-found friend as ‘also a photographer. Tim, this is Sebastiao Salgado!’. ‘Wow’ grinned Tim, ‘you’re kidding! Sebastiao Salgado – really? Your books are amazing, particularly the one about the gold mines in South America (Tim had all the right references of course. He didn’t ask him about trees).
‘So what’s your plan now, what’s next?’, I enquired, keeping the conversation going after the miraculous revelation.
‘Tomorrow I will be here again, photographing the gorillas’, divulged the world’s most famous photographer of humanity on the move, ‘and the next day, and the next…’
Salgado, the Nelson Mandela of photography is one of the most extraordinary human beings you could ever hope to run into in your lifetime. Let alone to photograph Gorillas with him in the jungle on a day off from your first ever photography assignment. In the meantime, I've gazed, mouth agape, at this economist turned photographer's staggering opus - his immortalisation of humanity on the move across our planet. Not a tree in sight. Well maybe a few in the background – occasionally.
The inscrutable universe had spoken, through its Gorilla mist.