The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Salt of the Earth is currently out in limited release.
To see one of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs for the first (or even the 100th time) is to be instantly, irrevocably moved, instantly transported to a vastly different, vastly alien time and place. Primarily known as a “social photographer” (a chronicler of people more than places), Salgado has carved out a remarkable career spanning five decades and practically every continent, winning international awards and recognition with each new, years-spanning work. Already the subject of more than one documentary, Salgado can add a third, The Salt of the Earth, this time the result of a collaboration between filmmaker Wim Wenders and Sebastião’s oldest son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, a documentary filmmaker in his own right. Wenders came in relatively late in the process, several years after Juliano began following his father on his latest, nature-centered photography project, “Genesis,” with his video camera. Their collaboration, however, never feels less than seamless, a testament to the time, effort, and care Wenders and the Salgados put into The Salt of the Earth.
Their collaboration, however, never feels less than seamless, a testament to the time, effort, and care Wenders and the Salgados put into The Salt of the Earth.
Structurally, The Salt of the Earth follows the well-worn path of a biography, tracing the elder Salgado’s origins in a small Brazilian town, Aimorés, his education during the late 1960s/early 1970s as a left-leaning economist, his early marriage to Lélia Wanick (they remain married), a move to Paris, France for work, Salgado’s first, fateful encounter with a camera, his increasing obsession with photography, and the joint decision made by Lélia and Sebastião for Salgado to become a full-time photographer, essentially upending what was until then a comfortable, comfortably bourgeois life (and lifestyle). From the beginning of his career as a photographer, Salgado didn’t think in terms of single photographs or even single countries, but of thematically linked projects that were eventually collected into traveling exhibitions and later books (e.g., Workers, The Other Americas, Sahel, Migrations, Genesis). Salgado also made the seemingly counter-intuitive choice to shoot in black-and-white (monochrome), not in color.
Salgado’s decision to work in monochrome didn’t so much limit his palette as expand the range of possibilities available to a photographer. Long (and justly) acknowledged as a master of light and shadow, Salgado’s works immediately stand out for their piercing, haunting beauty and the uniqueness of the subject matter. Salgado’s interest in industrialization and technology led him to the first of his critically acclaimed projects, “Workers.” Equally concerned with aesthetics as well as substance, Salgado’s first work depicted men, mostly manual laborers, as they wrestled with technology and nature to make a living for themselves and presumably their families. Salgado’s initial project took him to the Brazilian gold mines where nothing was mediated by technology. Thousands of men pored into and out of gigantic pits, carrying sacks of dirt (or empty sacks) up steep, treacherous ladders. Typical of Salgado, he found beauty both in teeming movement and in utter stillness as exhausted men paused briefly on their Sisyphean journey up and down the gold mines.
Salgado’s works immediately stand out for their piercing, haunting beauty and the uniqueness of the subject matter.
Salgado didn’t stop there, of course. His other, years-in-the-making projects took him on a mission to photograph the forgotten and unseen Americas (Latin/South America) and from there, repeated visits to Africa, where over time, he became witness not just to nation-wide famines and subsequent migrations, but to genocide too, specifically the Rwandan genocide achieved through direct and indirect violence. As any man or woman who’s witnessed so much suffering on such a large scale would, Salgado broke. Heart- and soul-sick, Salgado retreated to Brazil and the family farm. Ruined by drought and over-farming, the family farm was nothing but dust and dirt. Salgado’s ability to think long-term, a trait he shares with his wife, allowed him to imagine what once seemed impossible: Reclaiming the land for the long-lost rainforest. It took time, another decade, but it worked. The Salgados converted the family farm into an institute and with the help of the government, the land into a national park.
Salgado eventually turned to a new, ambitious project centered on nature, not people (the aforementioned “Genesis”). To some moviegoers or critics, it might seem like a retreat from the role as witness Salgado once embraced. Maybe, maybe not, but for Salgado, it was (and is) an act of restorative self-reclamation, an attempt, however incomplete or partially founded, to find hope and optimism again. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting testament, at least in documentary form, of Salgado’s decades-long journey as artist and witness than The Salt of the Earth.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting testament, at least in documentary form, of Salgado’s decades-long journey as artist and witness than The Salt of the Earth.