After a somewhat itinerant childhood, Salgado initially trained as an economist, earning a master’s degree in economics from the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He began work as an economist for the International Coffee Organization, often traveling to Africa on missions for the World Bank, when he first started seriously taking photographs. He chose to abandon a career as an economist and switched to photography in 1973, working initially on news assignments before veering more towards documentary-type work. Salgado initially worked with the Paris based agency Gamma, but in 1979 he joined the international cooperative of photographers Magnum Photos. He left Magnum in 1994 and formed his own agency, Amazonas Images, in Paris to represent his work. He is particularly noted for his social documentary photography of workers in less developed nations. Longtime gallery director Hal Gould considers Salgado to be the most important photographer of the early 21st century, and gave him his first show in the United States.
Salgado works on long term, self-assigned projects many of which have been published as books: The Other Americas, Sahel, Workers, and Migrations. The latter two are mammoth collections with hundreds of images each from all around the world. His most famous pictures are of a gold mine in Brazil called Serra Pelada. He is presently working on a project called Genesis, photographing the landscape, flora and fauna of places on earth that have not been taken over by man.
Most recently, Salgado has displayed his photographs in September and October 2007 coffee workers from India, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Brazil at the Brazilian Embassy in London. The aim of the project was to raise public awareness of the origins of the popular drink.