The global success of Sebastiao Salgado’s photography has been somehow condensed into one feature-length documentary, not that the film dilutes the power of his images in any way. Whether you’re a professional or amateur photographer, or just someone who appreciates photography, you’ll be amazed at the beauty and honesty of Salgado’s work. His story, as presented by director Wim Wenders ( Pina 2011, Buena Vista Social Club 1999) and his son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, is even more amazing. The film is The Salt of the Earth.
Perhaps a little abstract for the curious, as opposed to the photography intellectuals, the film opens on the theoretical wonderings of Win Wenders. The definition of photography and the role of the photographer are examined in a brief but memorably lofty couple of minutes. In a very romantic view, a photographer is essentially defined as someone who captures light and creates images of the world with it, in their own way redefining what they see and depicting how they see it. It’s a rather apt start to the almost spiritual journey of viewing Salgado’s photography the film is about to take us on.
Beginning in the expansive maze of the Brazilian gold mine, Serra Pelada, your eyes are treated to full screen stills of impressive photos that reflect on the human condition and our relationship with the earth itself. His style is unique; using black and white (barely ever colour film), his trusty SLR gives a rustic depth of field and offers a supernatural exposure of truly remarkable people and the world around them. From indigenous tribes deep in the rainforests of South America to open expanses of fields of static magma, his adventures around the globe are inspiring and sure to ignite envy as much as delight.
Salgado himself provides a commentary on the images displayed, telling us a little about how he captured them and what they mean to him. He’s shown in a mirror reflection of the images being viewed on a screen in a dark room, Salgado himself appearing in the same sort of intense detail that his black and white imagery gives. At no point does the floating head scenario become imposing, and that’s hard to pull off. It may be down to the relaxed ease with which Salgado discusses his work, or it may be down to the contemporary trick of the light with the black and white detailed close up. The experience is both surreal and impacting, much like the sensational pieces he’s describing.
The biographical aspects are dusted off nicely in the first half of the feature, relying on the traditional documentary structure of old images of the subject and voice over narratives by Win Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. We get a quick history of how Salgado’s humble beginnings on farmland in Brazil have influenced his relationship with the world around him, and helped develop his deep appreciation for the beauty of nature. His son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado joins the force as a documentarian, travelling with his father on one of his aspirational missions to the North Pole. The rare footage on offer here is of Salgado and son hiding out in a small wooden cabin from a polar bear, fresh from the kill of the walruses that are the subject of the shoot. Taking risks in the hunting grounds, rolling along the grey stone beach landscape to steal a phenomenal shot of walruses in the water bobbing along. Salgado’s sheer joy at seeing his achieved image when they return to the cabin provides a much-desired moment of unusual reveal behind his poetic artistry.
Narrowing down on Salgado’s unbelievable conceptual representation of the human condition, we come to experience his ability to decipher the harrowing social tragedies that humans inflict upon each other. Focusing on his most influential works within refugee aid camps and his globe trotting project ‘Workers’, we traverse the boundaries of time and place as we are transported into a metaphorical sphere of humbleness through vision.
No longer is the spectacle of viewing just sheer spectacle. In Salgado’s works you take on experiences and mind-altering visions. Yes the beauty of photography and the ideals of the travelled adventurous spirit prevail, but never have I felt it so strongly in a documentary about a photographer. I remember spending hours gawping at Salgado’s ‘Genesis’ while it toured in London’s Natural History Museum, but there’s more than beauty in his photos. Wim Wenders’ fantastic documentation has only confirmed the transcending strength of Salgado’s visual world. The Salt of the Earth is a triumph.