The Salt of the Earth
Breathtaking photography forms backbone of life-changing biopic
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Many years ago, as he informs us in the opening narration to his artistic new documentary The Salt of the Earth, German director Wim Wenders purchased a certain photograph. It was a snapshot of Brazilian gold miners pouring out of a muddy hole in the ground like ants. Deeply affected by the photograph, Wenders hunted down the artist, noted Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, eventually becoming a longtime friend and supporter. So when Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, decided to make a documentary about his famed father, he naturally turned to Wenders (Wings of Desire, Pina) as a collaborator. Together, the two men have crafted a mesmerizing visual tribute to a man who bills himself—in all modesty—as a “social photographer and observer of the human condition.”
After growing up on a remote farm in the Brazilian hinterlands, Salgado took a left turn in life when he went off to the University of São Paulo to study economics. Though he only worked in the field for a short time, the subject continued to inform much of his worldview regarding poverty, inequality and the working class people of the world. When Salgado made yet another unexpected turn into professional photography, he did so with the eye of an economist. Salgado’s early work—including the fateful photograph Wenders purchased—is examined here in detail. And it’s clear that, from the start, this artist had vision, talent and purpose. Much of his time was taken up with traveling the world chronicling the lives of indigenous peoples largely bypassed by the industrialized 20th century. Individual projects could take up to 10 years to complete. As a result, Salgado spent little time at home. Though it’s touched on mostly in fleeting mentions, it’s obvious this film is—in part—Juliano Salgado’s attempt to connect with and understand the father he only knew in brief layovers between world travels.
The sheer visual scale of the disaster is, quite honestly, a photographer’s dream. Salgado confesses his repeated inability to quit the country, hypnotized by the hellish landscape unfolding in front of his eyes. While the artist was at his creative peak, however, the man himself was about to reach his breaking point.
The Salt of the Earth—and this is surely Wenders’ touch—often drops into black and white, mirroring Salgado’s evocative palette of burnished grays. A rainbow of steel and iron and charcoal and well-rubbed pencil lead shines out from Salgado’s images. Whether he’s documenting lost tribes in the Amazon or factory workers in Eastern Europe, the images are vividly, passionately humane. The work speaks for itself. But it’s the story of the photographer’s journey—what he saw and how it changed him—that is most mesmerizing.
In time, Salgado turned his camera’s eye toward displaced people of the world. He started by traveling with Doctors Without Borders, shooting the famine in Ethiopia in the mid ’80s. Salgado’s photographs of the endless refugee camps are positively crushing in their despair. But they put a face to the disaster that numbers and statistics simply can’t. He followed that up with trips to war-torn Yugoslavia, conflict-filled central Africa and the burning oil fields of post-Gulf War Iraq. It’s in the raging inferno of Iraq that you see Salgado really living in his element. The sheer visual scale of the disaster is, quite honestly, a photographer’s dream. Salgado confesses his repeated inability to quit the country, hypnotized by the hellish landscape unfolding in front of his eyes. While the artist was at his creative peak, however, the man himself was about to reach his breaking point. It happened in Rwanda. Overwhelming scenes of ethnic cleansing gave him as low an opinion of human beings as possible. Given all that Salgado had already witnessed around the globe, it’s a sobering thought.
And yet, for all its dark truth-telling about our fellow man, The Salt of the Earth finds a glorious third act to Salgado’s story. Disgusted with humanity as a whole and on the verge of retirement, Salgado turns his artistic eye toward nature and the environment. Wildlife photography can be dangerously cliché, but Salgado has been able to capture our planet in a way that is as epic and emotional as his once-trademark human subjects. A late-in-life return to the Brazilian hills that gave birth to him is a thrillingly hopeful note on which to fade out, proving that humans can be the solution as well as the problem. We’ve seen enough artistically minded documentaries to know that art changes the lives of people who view it—but it’s reassuring to note that it’s equally capable of changing the lives of the people who make it.