Gold miners in Brazil. All photos by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics
"Salt of the Earth," Wim Wenders' reverent documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, should be required viewing for every member of the human race. Unfortunately, more people will probably see "Fast and Furious 7" than this riveting and heartbreaking film. Salgado has spent most of his adult life as a chronicler of man's inhumanity to man. Wenders, who was struck by the beauty, power and humanity embodied in Salgado's images, made this film along with Salgado's older son Juliano Rebeiro Salgado. In fact, like Dorothea Lange, Salgado's life's work documenting the world's families came with great sacrifice to his own. His older son Juliano grew up with a mostly absent father, and he really got to know his father as an adult when in 2004 his father invited him to come along on several photo trips that he eventually contributed to this film. Although Juliano had grown up surrounded by his father's work, he says he didn't really come to understand and appreciate those photographs until the making of this movie.
As Wenders points out in his incisive narration as the film opens, the word "photograph" means writing with light. Usually, a photograph will capture the light that emanates from the sun, the moon, the clouds. But for Salgado, the light seems to come from within him, and he shines it on the impoverished, the unfortunate and those thousands of poor souls who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Using both digital and film cameras, his photography shows no evidence of any difference, despite the passionate arguments many photographers have had over the difference each type of equipment makes. Salgado's images are luminous, the quality impeccable, regardless what camera he is using. In the film we see a scene he is recording but the image he has produced has a depth that almost takes your breath away. The photograph is different than what your eye or brain records. His images soar and it's hard to explain why.
There is a humanity in his work, a dignity that he finds and honors in every subject, every circumstance no matter how dire. He spent many decades documenting tragedy around the world from the drought-scarred Sahel in Africa to the genocides in Rwanda and Congo. He photographed the firefighters who tried to extinguish the burning oil wells of Iraq that were lit by Saddam's army as a final act of vengeance after the end of the Gulf War, turning the landscape into a literal hell on earth.
Ultimately he had to stop. His soul could absorb no more tragedy. After taking a break and retreating to his family's dying farm in Brazil, he embarked with his wife Leila, who has collaborated on all his photography over the years of their marriage, on a different project that she suggested: to replant the denuded forests of his family's farm and try to restore the land to its natural beauty. In accomplishing this, his own renewal took place. He decided that his next project would be one of hope, and spent the next 8 years documenting the pristine and beautiful places and people around the world untouched by change and published the work in a book called "Genesis." Getting back in touch with the beauty of nature, the power of one tree growing to maturity multiplied by thousands, brought him the hope he had lost sight of, and his own rebirth and restoration of spirit.
This is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. We must not turn away from these tragedies until we stop repeating them.
Tigray in Ethiopia.
Korem refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Oil well firefighter in Kuwait.