I think the first time I became aware of the work of Sebastião Salgado — although I didn’t learn his name until I saw this film — was when his stark black-and-white photographs of the hellish landscape of the burning oil fields in Kuwait in 1991 were all over magazines at the time. You may also have seen his harrowing yet powerfully humanistic images of people impacted by war, famine, displacement, and other 20th-century nightmares: he has documented such now infamous places-and-times as early-80s Ethiopia and Bosnia and Congo in the 1990s. Of his work in Bosnia, Salgado says here, sadly: “Everyone should see these images to see how terrible our species is.” And that’s why this film is so essential, too.
But there isn’t only horror in this profile of the “social photographer and witness to the human condition,” as The Salt of the Earth co-director Wim Wenders (The End of Violence) calls his subject. (The other codirector is Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who was clearly inspired by his father.) Journeying with Salgado in his current work documenting cultures untouched by the modern world, and also the natural world where it still appears as unaffected by humanity as is possible today, Wenders and Salgado the younger introduce us to a man who has taken a journey through curiosity-inspired adventure around our planet visiting its peoples, from the best we can be to our worst, and has emerged on the other side as a man in his 70s who still has hope that we can fix the mistakes we’ve made on a global scale (like how we’ve trashed our own environment).
I do have one big complaint about the film: Salgado’s wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, is described over and over again by Wenders’ narration as a driving force in the photographer’s life and his essential collaborator: she edits his work and helps him develop the overarching concepts of his enormous projects. Yet she is all but absent. (She finally appears on camera at the very end of the film to talk about a completely unrelated project the couple are working on today. It’s fascinating and important work, but it has nothing to do with Salgado’s photography.) We hear more from Juliano Ribeiro Salgado about how mysterious his father was to him as a child, because his father was always off on months-long adventures. This seems an almost unforgivable oversight.
Still, The Salt of the Earth — the title comes from the most frequent subjects of Salgado’s photos, ordinary people — is remarkably dynamic in all ways. For a film about still photographs, there is nothing static here: the directors came up with a way for us to be looking at one of Salgado’s photos and simultaneously at Salgado’s face as he discusses it. And if the despair of his work can be rather infectious, so is, thankfully, the resilience he sees in the most put-upon of people and the optimism he has found because of it.