Wim Wenders’ new documentary, “The Salt of the Earth,” an homage to the legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, explores the life and work of the artist/humanitarian/ecologist. Co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s filmmaker son, who had already shot vast hours of footage of his father while he had “taken his son to work” around the world.
For more than 40 years, Salgado has been a photographer nomad, bearing witness with his exquisite and empathetic images, always black and white, to indigenous cultures, workers (most famously those in a gold mine in Brazil) and major catastrophes, sometimes natural, but more often manmade, the results of war.
After his time in Rwanda photographing and living with the horrors of the genocide, Salgado was depleted. To help him heal, his wife (and creative partner), Lélia Wanick Salgado, suggested that the family return from Paris to the 600-hectare cattle ranch in Aimorés, Brazil, where he’d grown up and restore their personal earth.
What had once been a place of wild beauty was equally depleted. But miraculously the reforestation project begun then (which has included the planting of two million trees) has successfully restored the beautiful land (now an ecological reserve and national park).
Inspired by this home-grown beauty, in 2004 Salgado began his “Genesis” project, photographing pristine landscapes, and wildlife. In one of the most interesting “behind the scenes” footage of any photo shoot, Salgado slides on his stomach across a frozen beach toward a community of walruses.
Although Salgado has been criticized for layering “beauty” on top of misery, aestheticizing pain (an ongoing, general argument in documentary photography), I strongly disagree that the accusation applies to this work. It’s not necessary to know that Salgado spent weeks, often months with his subjects to recognize his respect for them and deep concern for their lives and his idealistic drive to bring change.
See “The Salt of the Earth” on as big a screen as possible. It’s glorious (as Salgado is talking about his work), to see his spectacular photographs, projected many multiples larger than his prints in galleries/museums or in his books.