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THE SALT OF THE EARTH

July 16, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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The Salt of the Earth opens with shots from photojournalist Sebastião Salgado’s series on the Serra Pelada Brazilian goldmines, captured during the mid 1980s. The dirt-swamped, yet mesmerising black and white images show body upon body of gold miners as they scurry up and down the quarries in search of even the smallest nugget of the precious metal. These iconic shots have an otherworldly quality, resembling Renaissance battle scenes with their intricacy and chaos.
 
It’s images like these that have made Salgado one of the most highly regarded documentary photographers in the world, and what led acclaimed director Wim Wenders to create a film in homage to his life and work. Wenders’ co-director is Salgado’s own son, Juliano Ribero, and this combination of the established German filmmaker working alongside the much less experienced Salgado Jr seems to work as both have a genuine admiration for the photographer as an artist and a man.

Both parties are said to have been planning separate film projects about Salgado, but decided to pool their efforts; Wenders offering the advantage of skill and experience and Salgado Jr having an invaluable personal connection with the lead. Salgado, now in his seventies, makes a magnetic subject as the film traces him from his childhood in Brazil; a short time spent practicing as an Economist in France and his decision in his thirties to make sociological photography his life’s mission.

It’s clear he’s unused to being on the receiving end of the lens, as Wenders shows Salgado turning his camera back on the crew on more than one occasion, as if desperate to regain his position as an observer. In fact, the photographer is said to have been so uncomfortable being filmed for interviews that Wenders resorted to setting up a camera in a soundproof booth, with only images of Salgado’s work surrounding him.

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The raw observations shown in Salgado’s work – that often explore humanity at its bleakest – are occasionally critiqued as voyeuristic, but The Salt of the Earth demonstrates how deeply the photographer is invested in his subjects and their lives, at what could have been at the expense of his relationships with his own family. 

Salgado’s large-scale, time consuming projects would often require him to be away for months, even years at a time, yet his wife and son are shown as altruistic in their support. Salgado’s wife of nearly 50 years, Leila, bought the photographer his first camera and acts as the designer and editor for many of his books.
 
Following many years of exposure to man’s self-inflicted horrors, including extreme greed, famine and battles for oil, Salgado’s closeness with his subjects causes him to have a crisis of conscience, bringing him psychically and mentally to his knees.

Photographing the fleeing refugees of Rwanda during the 1994 spring genocide, and again a year after in its wake, Salgado captures humanity at its most destitute, with shot after shot of emaciated mothers mourning their infant children in mass graves and trucks loaded with the dead. Salgado became deeply troubled, saying that his ‘soul was sick’; his enduring faith in humankind questioned, causing him to take his work into another direction.
 
The Salt of the Earth captures Salgado as he works on ‘Genesis’, an extensive body of work that takes the photographer to the four corners of the earth as he seeks out the remaining wildlife and landscapes that are untouched by mankind. The documentary takes a shift in aesthetic at this point also, switching from the drama of Salgado’s harrowing monochromatic photography to more expansive, Wenders-eque establishing scenes of nature, from the antarctic to the rainforest.

The photographer reclaims his favoured role as storyteller and guide in these scenes, bringing Wenders and Juliano Ribero with him as he crawls on his belly to capture shots of walruses in the Arctic circle. We’re also shown the lush vegetation at Sebastião and Leila’s Instituto Terra, the couple’s passion project that saw them replant and nurture over 17,000 acres of Brazilian rainforest. 

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In the film’s opening minutes, we hear Wenders dissect the etymology of the word ‘photographer’, which breaks down simply to one who ‘draws with light’.

Throughout the course of The Salt of the Earth, we’re shown how Salgado’s signature black and white imagery is unmatched in its ability not only to emote the light and dark of humankind, but in discovering the shades of hope and silver in what could otherwise be seen as desolate scenes.

The Salt Of The Earth is released in UK cinemas on July 17th

Martha Ling