Life in the twenty-first century is saturated with images. Our hourly or more likely by-the-minute interaction with screens presents us with a multitude of ideas, news and more often than not, waffle clamouring for our attention. Yet a singular image can still manage to grab us and come to represent a national or international issue. How a particular image achieves this status is due to many factors, but it often leads to a fascination with the photographer that created it. What did they see and experience to bring us something so extraordinary? What has their life entailed to allow them the vision to capture a moment in just such a way?
It’s the search for definitive answers to these questions that inspired acclaimed German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) to make The Salt of the Earth (2014), seeking out Sebastiᾶo Salgado, a photographer who has documented some of the most significant humanitarian disasters and untouched corners of the world for the past forty years. It’s a career in which the photographer has witnessed the gold rush at Serra Pelada in 1979, Ethiopia in the mid-1980s working with Doctors without Borders, the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994 and more recently those few remaining parts of the world left uncorrupted by industrial interference, such as the uncontacted Zo’é tribe in Brazil.
Co-directing with Salgado’s eldest son Juliano, Wenders describes Salgado’s upbringing and early years as an economist before he and his wife Lélia decided to devote themselves full time to large scale photographic projects. Indeed, it’s Lélia that comes to be a real fascinating subject here, as her thorough research and planning, and subsequent editing, are shown to be core to the family business – documenting the world. Projects such as Workers (1986-1993) and Exodus (1994-1999) would take Sebastiᾶo away for years at a time and though never accompanying her husband on these trips, Lélia nevertheless saw the world through his images, and felt the devastation of what he saw upon his return, as was the case after Rwanda, which Salgado describes as leaving him with the feeling that “his soul was sick”. Wenders’ considered voice-over and Laurent Petitgrand’s score provide a steady and contemplative tone, structuring their portrait around the recounting of memories from journeys past. This narration is guided by the showing of photographs to their subject, so that key images illustrate both for us and Salgado, his decades of experience.
The photographer’s weathered visage is framed in black, and when occasionally he leans forward to better survey the image he created, it becomes layered with the photographic plates placed in front of him. We see his eyes search the composition, recalling associated memories and relating them back. The eyes that bore witness and the resulting image combine, revealing Salgado’s enormous empathy for human suffering. The Salgados are now creators and guardians of Instituto Terra, a project to replant the Atlantic rainforest running through the family farm, where it had become barren due to drought. Instigated by Lélia in the late 1990s the re-introduction of flourishing vegetation to the area inspired Sebastiᾶo to visit and photograph Galapagos for another huge project, Genesis (2004-2013). It’s this uninhibited passion for exploration and desire to show the full range of human experience that make Lélia and Sebastiᾶo Salgado so inspiring, and, amongst the plethora of images we live with, this remarkable and deeply moving film is vital viewing.
Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman