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Sebastião Salgado’s photography is among the most stunning in the history of the camera.  Many talented and fully engaged witnesses with cameras preceded him but the range of his eye and what he conveys to us as secondary observers in his large, sometimes wall-sized, black and white photos may never be equaled.

Movies Salt of the EarthThe Salt of the Earth, a 2014 documentary, is a opportunity not only to see some of his best known photos — say of thousands of Brazilian miners, sandal-wearing and shirtless, carrying loads of earth in head-strapped baskets hundreds of feet up rickety ladders — on a big movie screen, where the abuse and waste of human lives hits like a fist, but to meet Salgado himself.  In a darkroom with a series of his photographs projected before him, he talks about each, the experience it came from and the people involved.  To make the experience a three-fer, it is directed and edited by acclaimed German film maker Wim Wenders, known to some for the Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and to others for Wings of Desire (1987). Along with Wenders, Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribiero Salgado makes a major contribution.  Both had been working on films about him, Juliano traveling with his father to the Arctic and Papua New Guinea, Wenders working from the photo books. From the push-pull of the two men, with different but ultimately complementary visions comes the movie we see.

The dominant thread follows Salgado through his major photography projects, planned in detail with his wife, Lelia, taking years to complete and resulting in mesmerizing, often disturbing large-format books.  The first viewed (though not the first done) is called Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993).  The book is divided into six categories, “Agriculture,” “Food,” “Mining,” “Industry,” “Oil” and “Construction”, with over 350 photos from 21 countries, all looking at the ceaseless toil that provide the underpinnings of modern life. A few are chosen to talk about.  The incredible photos of miners, he tells us, were taken near his family home in Minas Gerais, Brazil, where, after  working as an economist in Africa and first coming to attention with his photographs of the 1983-84 famine in Ethiopia, he began his life work.

Movies Salt of the Earth Miners

Sahel: The End of the Road.“(1984-85), Migrations (1994-99)  and others, all of which he calls “photographic essays” are given generous attention.  Looking at projections of the photos, he shares his recollections, not of camera technology, or his own difficulties to get to these places but, with a calm, weighted voice, (mostly in French) of having been a witness for these people, often for weeks and months at a time.

Juliano’s contribution adds other dimensions to the man.  We see family photographs and a bit of a home-movie of his grandfather, Sebastião’s father; we see Juliano as a baby; both talk about a brother/son born with Downs syndrome.  Lelia, Sebastiao’s wife, makes brief appearances throughout, which we wish were a bit longer.  Through their long marriage, she has been a co-conceiver of the projects and it seems, a “producer,” finding sources of funds, building the networks into which the books and shows could be distributed, and of course, as a mother raising two children during months and months of his absence. More of her voice would have been welcomed.

The other element Juliano brings are a couple of “live” shoots with his father, particularly as they roll their bodies, like logs, over Arctic cobble trying to get a shot of a polar bear and winding up with the surprise of a walrus herd, tusks gleaming in the Arctic twilight. Not only is it a nice father and son moment, it also shows what others have described as Salgado’s obsession with getting the shot, ignorant, it seems, of what others would call danger.

Physically and emotionally sick after Sahel, he returns with Lelia to Brazil from which they had left in 1969 after several years of university militancy during the early years of the military dictatorship.  They have inherited a property from his father in near ruins from the work he had done on it.  Lelia, becomes the ‘producer’ again and embarks on the quixotic task of replanting the bare hills, trying to return it to something like it had originally been.  Some one million trees, and a decade later, they have largely succeeded — and Salgado, recovered from his illness, has turned his eye from the terrible ruins of humanity to the natural world, both in and around his home but further, to the Galapagos, the Arctic and around the globe.  The old ranch is now “The Instituto Terra,” the center of a growing ecological preserve and educational foundation to help Brazilians and others learn to change course in land use and stewardship.

The product of his reconstituted photographic vision is seen in Genesis, from iceberg castles and leopards drinking,to  Z0’e women at rest and a Yakli man climbing a wall of vines.  Simply wonderful stuff, and in a certain way, a closer fit between his sense of composition, contrast and beauty and the images.

Movies Salt of the Earth Zo'e Women

Some have felt an unease looking at his photos, stirred by the tension between photographic beauty and human misery.  Should, they ask, the bloated belly of an infant be displayed as a work of art?  Or, is it art? Is it reportage?  Do the images confronting us from exhibition walls, or expensive books connect us deeper, and in some actionable way, to those it portrays and the conditions that put them there?  Or are the images somehow reified, becoming a mental wall-paper for our own comfortable lives?

I’ve got no answers myself. The people are nowhere viewed as objects; each projects a dignity even when under extreme duress.  There is no sense of ‘sneaking’ pictures; it is always a shared moment between photographer and photographed.  I do find myself uneasy, though,  leafing through one of his big, expensive books, in a comfortable home, whose owner can afford the price, and put the book on a perfect coffee table.  Perhaps because I feel the confusion of art and documentation, perhaps because the art is showing us not-art.

Perhaps the uneasiness is not from an anesthetization of misery but from seeing, actually, what we so seldom see.  Perhaps we should all be uneasy.  As a paragraph at his web-site says:

Almost everything that happens on earth is somehow connected. We are all affected by the widening gap between rich and poor, by population growth, by the mechanization of agriculture, by destruction of the environment, by bigotry exploited for political ends. The people wrenched from their homes are simply the most visible victims of a global convulsion.

 UNICEF, for whom Salgado has been a special aambassador for years, Doctors Without Borders and other workers in the alleviation of human misery certainly think he has been a profound force for conscientizacao, to borrow a word coined by his fellow Brazilian Paulo Freire.  He has focused attention — never enough– and moved individuals and nations to act — never enough. But something.

The movie will someday be available on-line but don’t pass up the opportunity to see the images on a big screen.  They will certainly turn your heart, if not your life, completely.


Review of Salt of the Earth at Cannes, 2014, including mention of the “aestheticization” problem

A nice interview with Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribiero Salgado about making the movie.

An interview in March, 2015 with Salgado about the film.

Salgado himself giving a TED talk in February, 2013

A study of Salgado and his work, by Parvati Nair.

AmazonasImages, the Salgado’s own site.