[Film Review] The Salt of the Earth

Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Salt of the Earth is an ode to Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian photographer. In this moving documentary, Wim Wenders’ and Salgado’s son Juliano draw his portrait. The two filmmakers complement each other, intercutting Wenders’ inventively shot black and white interviews with Juliano’s color footage. Both achieve a form of intimacy, the first by creating a space for Salgado to comment on his photography, the latter by interviewing his own family and taking us along on trips with his father, who was often absent during his childhood. There is barely any discussion of the technical aspects of his photography, no explanations regarding his creative process. The real focus of the film is on the man and his message.

Salgado’s career is nothing short of incredible, and is all the more interesting for the emotional journey that shaped it. Despite obtaining a PhD degree in economics and beginning work with the World Bank, he quickly abandoned this career-path at the age of 29, in favour of photography. During his beginnings as a social photographer, Salgado traveled throughout South America to cover the lives of the continent’s poor, producing a first book: The Other Americas (1986). More travels and publications followed, the fruit of self-assigned projects spanning across years. Sahel: Man in Distress (1986) took him all across northern Africa and particularly Ethiopia, where he witnessed the 1984-5 famine caused by drought and exacerbated by cruel political machinations which deprived tens of thousands of emergency aid. Workers (1993) showed the faces of manual laborers around the world, Terra (1997), the struggle of Brazilian landless peasants and Migration (2000), the plight of refugees, forced from their homes by poverty and war.

His work, Wim Wenders quickly points out, reaches beyond the realm of photojournalism. Salgado’s photography is art, he tells us, and he an artist “drawing with light”. His trademark is a silvery monochrome that is all the more impressive for being projected on a large screen. Salgado comments on his work, his face bathed in the same silver light that suffuses it. Each set is complemented by its own sound design, bringing life to the stills. The man is soft-spoken, often palpably moved by his memories. He recounts stories unpretentiously, and seems genuinely fascinated by human resilience, which is only equaled by our capacity for violence. He expresses a real desire to connect with people.

Yet Salgado, for all his modesty and evident compassion for his subjects, is not without his critics. In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott concludes that “The Salt of the Earth leaves no doubt about Mr. Salgado’s talent or decency, and the chance to spend time in his company is a reason for gratitude. And yet his pictures, precisely because they disclose harsh and unwelcome truths, deserve a harder, more critical look”. This assessment seems fair, as Wim Wenders’ obvious admiration and the collaborative nature of the film mean that criticism is largely absent. For a “more critical look” than the film’s low-key hagiography, we can turn to Susan Sontag. In her essay-collection Regarding the Pain of Others, she condemned the aesthetic beauty of Salgado’s work for making peoples’ suffering too abstract, too distant, too inauthentic. She deplored the absence of his subjects’ names from the labels, arguing it reduces them to mere representations of pain and suffering, rather than people we can identify and feel with. To her, this undermines whatever humanitarian intentions the photographer might have. That these challenges are not discussed in The Salt of the Earth is a shame because they cannot easily be dismissed. Yet the more I think back on the film, the less convinced I am of their validity. Rather than having a dehumanising effect, I feel the cinematic scale of some of Salgado’s photography and the anonymity of his suffering subjects makes his pictures at once universal and personal. This lends them real power. For all their beauty and admirable composition, many of his pictures left me reeling. Some are now stuck in my mind for good, so inhabited by misery and death as they were. They are so striking that they cannot be ignored.

Having faced so much violence, Salgado eventually despaired. The turning point, he tells us, was in Rwanda. There he witnessed the genocide. Scenes of senseless violence, carried out against a backdrop of poverty, corruption, environmental crises, ethnic divides and state-sponsored racism, occurred daily. Something in him broke. It was only coming back to his father’s ranch, a desolate corner of Brazil wasted by deforestation, that he dreamt up a path to redemption. With his wife Lélia, he founded the Instituto Terra and endeavoured to bring life back to the parched land. In 15 years, they restored the Atlantic Forest which once stood there, and in the meantime, Salgado set out on a new project: Genesis. The book of the same name, which came out in 2013, is an ode to Nature. Rather than documenting its destruction, Salgado chose to celebrate what he considers to be nature in its purest form, bringing back incredible shots from across the continents. While the notion of ‘pristine’ nature is problematic, and there are dangers in romanticizing the lives of ‘untouched’ tribes, his pictures carry a strong ecological message that is touching in its simplicity, and, as could be expected, is beautifully expressed. The Earth is a constant source of wonderment. We need to co-exist with it and all its components. Better yet, we need to protect what we have, and restore what we destroyed.

Piece originally published on deciduous.in (now inactive) on January 20th, 2015.