Early on in The Salt of the Earth, the photography of Sebastião Salgado is described as ‘drawing with light’. All visual art can be reduced to a manipulation of light, but it’s that sense of artistry upon artistry, a drawing extracted from photography, that distinguishes Salgado’s work. Anyone who’s viewed his many collections and exhibitions cannot but feel moved. The interplay of black and white in Salgado’s work occasionally seems otherworldly, like breathing charcoal sketches. Yet real they are, and given extra power by an overwhelming humanity. Salgado is a documentarian in images, and his travels have taken him to the most awe-inspiring sights and the most painful of human sufferings. This breadth and depth is brought to the big screen by Salgado’s own son Juliano and no less a collaborator than Wim Wenders.”
Wenders seems tailor-made for a project like The Salt of the Earth. Besides being an acclaimed photographer in his own right (with exhibitions still on tour), he has amassed notable experience in documenting and celebrating worthy artists. However, this may be the most personal documentary project Wenders has undertaken since Tokyo-Ga, his 1985 documentary on Yasujirô Ozu. Buena Vista Social Club was as much a snapshot of Cuba as it was of the titular group, while Pina was arguably more concerned with the art than the artist (Fair enough; as an art form, dance is underserved by recent filmmaking, so Wenders’ 3D experience let the dance do the talking). In The Salt of the Earth, as with Tokyo-Ga, Wenders is exploring an artist at a personal level. Salgado is the subject, his work simply a necessary adjunct.
Many may be familiar with Salgado’s stark photography, but the film starts where Salgado started, with a very humble upbringing in rural Brazil. Salgado achieved a Master’s degree in economics, but just as we get to that, Wenders interjects with footage of Salgado shooting Tuareg nomads and New Guinean tribes. The relative comfort afforded to Salgado by his education melts away to reveal the wonders that would seduce him to photography. The tribesmen handle and poke Salgado’s camera with a primeval curiosity, before Salgado aims his camera right back at the camera filming him. In this moment, the urge to document human nature thus links both cameras, and both men behind the cameras. In Salgado, Wenders identifies a kindred spirit and a kindred eye, seeking out the remarkable. Wenders’ narration often seems in awe of that eye, even before we get to the major collections.
The Salt of the Earth draws a quiet power from Salgado’s photographs. His earliest and best-known collection, taken at the gold mine in Serra Palada in Brazil, is a striking exemplar of his work. As thousands ascend dangerously high ladders out of the ground, the stark black-and-white photographs simultaneously marvel at the feats of our labours and reduce our earth-moving efforts to the scale of ants. Despite the varied subjects of his collections, whether documenting the plight of refugees (Exodus) or famine and disease in sub-Saharan Africa (Sahel), there’s a collision between humanity’s frailty and majesty that moves so deeply. Wenders and Salgado do right by the work, letting the art speak for itself.
This unshowy approach can make The Salt of the Earth seem conventional, especially compared to the necessary exuberance of Pina. It’s a relatively calm portrait of a man whose passion manifests itself in his photography. As an active participant in this retelling, Salgado is a mellow but honest subject. Some may be frustrated that Salgado isn’t more revealing about his work’s effect on him, but that plays into both his and Wenders’ aims. The photographs convey enough emotion on their own to convey Salgado’s feelings; the images are harrowing enough, so the reality could not but feel worse. It also lends catharsis to the later chapters, as Wenders documents Salgado and his family’s conservation work at their nature reserve, the Instituto Terra, back in the Brazilian forests. As Salgado himself describes it, the land heals his soul.The Salt of the Earth determinedly carries a sense of healing and hope, even through the harshest of tragedies, as captured by its subject. Art reveals much about our human nature, and Wenders’ documentary excels in doing this on scales both personal and all-encompassing.