The Salt of the Earth
Sharing, through image and speech, the life’s work of celebrated Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado The Salt of the Earth displays its visual power and allure right from its opening sequence: a series of vivid black and white Salgado stills from the enormous Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil with its ant-like colony of gold seekers. It is clear from these photographs that Salgado got down and dirty with the miners, a theme evinced throughout the earthy humanist’s work.
This introduction through wide, detailed environmental portraits is strongly reminiscent of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes which used the similarly intricate photographs of its subject Edward Burtynsky as jumping off points for each segment of the film. However, where Baichwal’s film is driven primarily by its thematic concerns—such as humanity’s impact on the world—and maintains a sense of tonal distance Salt is a highly personal account (narrated by Salgado himself) of the photographer’s life, travels, and of the contexts in which his photographs were shot. And where baichwal and Burtynsky leave the audience to draw its own conclusions regarding complicity in harmful, unsustainable systems Salt leaves no doubt as to Salgado’s position on a range of international geopolitical and socioeconomic issues. The photographer’s very style of working is immersive. He specialises in lengthy photobook studies of (often) impoverished and war torn regions such as his early nineties meditation on the working poor of the world Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age. But instead of turning up in exotic locales to take pictures Salgado’s modus operandi is to settle himself in; to live and work amongst the people and better understand their context and the beauty and tragedy in their lives. His work reflects this deep empathy which takes hold of the viewer as the photographer walks us through the various communities he has joined at periods of his life.
The documentary footage is a finely edited splicing of the work of noted German director Wim Wenders (shooting in monochrome) and the subject’s own son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (shooting in colour) alongside various pieces of archival footage and footage of still photography. In an interesting side-note Juliano acknowledges that travelling and filming with Sebastião was in great part a way to connect with an enigmatic and all too often absent father—a goal seemingly achieved to some degree. As it happens the younger Salgado is also a dab hand at composing an image, but I guess that runs in the genes!
Given filming and editing commensurate with the quality of the subject Wenders and (J.R.) Salgado turn out a stunning film, which has deep emotional hooks. The overall arc of the film is Salgado’s journey of discovery, slowing slipping down into the depths of despair, and finally back out into the light of day. Indeed the middle third gets very grim and the film engenders such audience empathy that you begin to wonder how Salgado is going to rise out of this existential morass when a surprising turn lifts his (and our) trajectory. In The Salt of the Earth subject, cinematography, direction, and editing combine in a moving, challenging, and ultimately relatable portrait of an artist-activist whose work continues to change himself as much as the world he captures.
[WARNING: This film includes photographic stills of multiple dead bodies and other awful effects of war and extreme poverty. I’m inclined, like Salgado, to think that people should know/see the true state of the world for a large portion of its population but understand that some people may not feel equipped to cope with such images.]
Rating: M Content may disturb.