In a documentary about a photographer, it’s easy to let the subject’s body of work take over the film’s central focus, and there are times in The Salt of the Earth when director Wim Wenders fills the screen with Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado’s powerful images and allows the ‘gallery’ to play out, with one image serenely fading into the next. Luckily, though, Wenders balances this with a thorough exploration of Salgado’s expeditions and the passion that drives him, intercut with first-hand commentary on the remarkable imagery from Salgado himself.
The film opens with a fairly standard (in documentary terms) account of Salgado’s beginnings growing up on a farm in Brazil, becoming a student of economics, and later moving to Europe with his wife. It was here that he ‘stumbled upon’ photography, and made the gutsy decision to dedicate his career, and life, to this newfound passion. Nobody could have guessed where it would take him, and the impact that his work would have.
Strangely, early-on in the film, Wenders decides to break the fourth wall and the documenting of him and his crew documenting Salgado is remarked upon; this is perhaps, as Wenders asserts, due to Salgado’s discomfort in front of the camera (‘I got a good shot of you, too!’) and divulges to us the photographer’s dignified, unassuming nature.
The story then unfolds to delineate Salgado’s journey across continents, through spates of long trips, and the underlying tale of estrangement from his children as a result. Considering the film was co-directed by his son, and allusions to his ‘rediscovery’ of his father are made during their Arctic trip early on in the film, more of a focus on their relationship (and a little more of Juliano’s perspective) perhaps could have benefited the narrative.
Wenders, at this point, takes us through an exhaustive and unremitting consecution of photographs from Salgado’s archives, which chronicle humanity in some of its ugliest forms; African genocide, starvation, the Kuwaiti oil fire and mass-migration are some of the contexts of the images outlined by Salgado’s commentary. This part of the film is not for the faint-hearted, and reveals the overall power and scope of the medium itself.
An extended monochrome talking-head interview with the subject plays behind the stills of Salgado’s nuanced and prodigious photographic career, and it’s through these that we really get to know this articulate, soft-spoken character. A lot of the rawness of the film comes from his direct emotional reaction to his photographs as they are shown to him, and he recalls each of his experiences with gentle, honest ease, giving us a window into the remarkable history which lies beneath the images.
Juliano Salgado commented on the decision to film his father in this way:
“We got him enclosed in a little room with black paper. In front of the camera, there were [projected] photographs. He would react to them. He would remember what had happened to him. He was confronted with his own images and lived his own emotions back. It was so powerful that in some places in the film, for instance in Rwanda, he could only bear to stay there for five minutes. That segment is almost real time. Suddenly, his subjectivity becomes an emotion that you feel.”
At one point, Salgado’s relaying of his experiences leads him to affirm:
“We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.”
When working in Rwanda and witnessing such brutality, through the extensive suffering of its people and thousands of deaths per day, Salgado became very ill and returned to his home in Paris. He had lost his faith in humanity.
This led to his breakdown, and subsequent return to Brazil. The redemption of his faith came in the form of the re-planting and restoration of his family’s farmland, which makes up the concluding section of the film. This proves to be the story arc that makes the documentary, with Salgado’s passion for the land and the flourishing of the nature reserve on which it now stands giving the final act a much-needed uplift through the metaphor of the assertion of man’s ability to rebuild; grow; make reparation. This message of hope is communicated through the photography of Salgado’s final monumental collection Genesis, which chronicles humanity’s connection to nature ‘from the beginning’.
The Salt of the Earth does justice to its fascinating subject, due to Wenders skilfully giving the photographs the respect and focus they deserve whilst painting a nuanced picture of the man behind the camera, and his courageous spirit. Although at times it’s certainly not an easy watch, its message of hope in humanity’s (and nature’s) integrity prevails, thanks to Salgado’s final, beautiful ‘love letter to the planet’.
The Salt of the Earth is in cinemas now.