Wim Wenders and co-director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado get to the heart of the human experience with their documentary The Salt of the Earth. By exploring the life of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, the filmmakers simultaneously examine the boundless compassion and unimaginable cruelty people are capable of toward one another. They do all this while also committing to film some of the most starkly beautiful and terrifying images ever put on screen.
Before sitting down to watch The Salt of the Earth, I knew nothing about Sebastião and little about photography in general. I could describe the documentary as an examination of Salgado’s art, but that’s sort of like describing the Sistine Chapel as a decorated ceiling. Salgado’s son, Juliano, wanted to document more than just Sebastião’s life’s work. To get an outside perspective, he approached one of cinema’s most contemplative, emotionally mature artists – German director Wim Wenders. Watch Wenders’ superb film Paris, Texas to see what I mean. Together, the directors are A+ educators and they treat the elder Salgado’s career with great care and respect. And the commentary they pull out of Sebastião about his art is incredibly insightful.
The technique they use to capture this insight is vivid and imaginative. Throughout the film, the directors fill the screen with the striking black-and-white pictures Sebastião has taken. As he describes the particulars of each shot, the camera quickly shifts focus to bring Sebastião’s face into the frame, so you can see both. At that moment, your perspective changes from looking at just the photograph to looking at the artist looking at his photograph. Since you can still see both the picture and him at the same time, you also get the impression he’s looking at you while he speaks. It’s an astonishing method.
Sebastião’s compositions focus mainly on the downtrodden among us: manual laborers, refugees displaced by war and famine, the people regularly forgotten by society. They are the salt of the earth, Wenders reminds us in voice over. The first photograph of Sebastião’s that we see – a giant pit where workers mine for gold and look like ants scurrying for food – is endlessly fascinating. In a theatrical exhibition setting, the picture is impossibly huge, offering up the chance to notice details that might escape you on a smaller scale. It’s bigger than life.
So too is Sebastião’s story. He grew up the son of a poor Brazilian farmer, went to college to study something practical, and eventually graduated with a degree in economics. Soon after graduation, he married and had a child, so it seemed his practical and financially-stable future was set. Then, he picked up his first camera. With the support of his wife, Lélia, Sebastião followed his new passion by ditching his planned career in economics and took to the road. More often than not the newly minted photographer would be gone for years at a time, in order to document the beauty and the horror of human existence.
The film takes us all across the globe, charting the harrowing arc of Sebastião’s career. We see mesmerizing pictures of oil wells set ablaze during the first Gulf War, and a cataloging of starvation and deprivation all across Africa during the 1980s. The photojournalist also discusses in horrifying detail the images he captured of the piles of bodies in Rwanda, a sad testament to ethnic genocide. But Sebastião was also able to find moments of great hope, like when he caught a child looking at his mother with absolute trust, despite lives spent struggling in impossible circumstances during a famine in Africa.
One thread that runs through The Salt of the Earth is the photographer’s slow realization that we are destroying the world and each other, and using economics as our weapon. The same economic systems the artist studied in college in the 1960s are the cause of human suffering that he later preserved in pictures. The film spends some time documenting the Salgado family’s land and the drought and desolation it’s suffered, as well as his dedication to do something about it. Over time, Sebastião and his family plant millions of trees on their land, restoring balance to the local ecosystem. Sebastião Salgado is the kind of person who unquestioningly follows his passions.
In the past ten years or so, I’ve become accustomed to the formula employed by social consciousness documentaries. The films start with a problem, describe that problem in detail, and conclude with a call to action. Things can get better if we heed the call. The Salt of the Earth tweaks that formula by showing someone actually making the change and the dramatic improvements that follow. The economist became a photographer, who became a reforestation expert.
What Sebastião Salgado has achieved in his life is amazing. It’s true he has documented some of the worst humanity has to offer, but he has also produced images of hope. This documentary made me reflect on my own passions, and the way I want to live my life. When you see a film that capable of transferring the beauty and wonder of human existence, it’s something to be celebrated.