The arresting images that compose the 2014 Oscar nominated documentary, “The Salt of the Earth,” tell an elegant story of Sebastiao Salgado’s prolific life and work. Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Sebastiao’s son), the beautiful but slow moving documentary is largely Wender’s reverence to the elder Salgado and a surface contemplation of human activity which unfortunately misses the answers to the questions Salgado’s photographs elicit.
Wenders and Salgado are both immensely talented visionaries, aiming to reflect what our world appears to be with the film. However, there are times when we are unable to separate Wenders’ impartial perspective from the more complex questions that Salgado asks in his work. Instead, the documentary often loses itself in the images the film is supposed to explore: Human malaise is presented with the same haunting intensity of Salgado’s photography but it is not questioned, not explained, and the imagery, on its own, is overwhelming and even tiring at times. Salgado’s photography takes its power from the sheer incomprehensibility of its subject. How can the viewers’ lives – and more immensely – humanity, coexist with the horrors and pains witnessed in these pictures? The film doesn’t answer this question, nor does it elaborate on it. Instead, it takes the same tools to elicit the same message, only that – due to the fact that the viewer now is locked in a theater with no way to avoid the stimulus – the images soon lead to numbness.
With Juliano Salgado (Sebastiao’s son) in a co-directing role, the separation between the documentary’s subject and the documentarian is certainly not clear-cut or easy to untangle. Sebastiao Salgado grew up in Brazil and lived in Paris shortly after his studies in Economics, where he holds a PhD. He married his college girlfriend, Leila, and together they had two sons. For the next few decades, the documentary chronicles Salgado’s move from being an economist to a photographer, and his decision to make photography his primary priority. Leila and their two sons were left for months at a time. The film presents a fractured chronology in the re-telling of Salgado’s life and career, opening with one of Salgado’s most iconic images, gold miners from Serra Pelada.
Susan Sontag has said, in her piece “Looking at War,” that Salgado photographs “world misery” as if it was a cinematic still life, and in doing so renders the content inauthentic. To give credit to Wenders, addressing the paradox that Salgado has presented, portraits at once of beauty and brutality, is a tough subject to fairly narrate. Wenders avoids the large criticisms of the photographer’s work and instead looks at Salgado’s years abroad as a personal odyssey. There are times in the film where Salgado is alluded to as Dante, travelling through the most extreme parts of the Earth where salvation is questionable and existence bleak.
“The Salt of the Earth” is a documentary that demands attention, moving through decades of Salgado’s social consciousness. Though the film lacks discussion on systemic global problems that are the core of Salgado’s photographs, it is still an exercise in evaluating the binary sides of humankind: their cruelty and their humanity.
Photography: Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics