This is my review of The Salt of the Earth DVD.
Wim Wender’s documentary on the life and work of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado holds the audience speechless and spellbound by the artistry, beauty yet often bleak evidence of man’s inhumanity in his pictures. Starting with incredible shots, all the more striking for being black-and-white, of miners swarming like ants on ladders to scale the steep, irregular face of a goldmine, the film goes on to show the various stages of his career. The scale of the forested valley and hills round his family’s farm may have formed his love of landscapes, where he has sought out self-sufficient communities, from Amazonia to Siberia, and won their confidence, enabling him to show them living in close harmony with nature. Another of his collections of photojournalism produced with his wife, focuses on different aspects of employment round the world.
A sensitive man, made aware of injustice through the harshness of the authoritarian military regime which forced him and his wife into exile in their youth, he was inevitably drawn to cover the sufferings of those forced by brutal war to become refugees. Uncensored photos of African victims are particularly harrowing, so it easy to understand why he became depressed by man’s capacity for cruelty, and turned to the animal world, with amusing scenes of his dedication, as he and his son roll over stony ground to catch walruses unawares, rearing up to clash their tusks in the misty dawn. “Genesis”, a wide-ranging project “dedicated to showing the beauty of our planet, reversing the damage done to it, and preserving it for the future” includes some breath-taking aerial shots.
With an innate confidence, he has taught himself the craft of different types of photography, aided by his artist’s eye – he explains at one point to his son how a shot will not work owing to the lack of a suitable background or “frame”.
We see the personal cost of his work, with long periods away from his wife who was left with the care of a Downs Syndrome son, while he seemed like a stranger to his older boy in his early years. The restoration of Salgado’s family farm by the replanting of trees to replace the deforestation and erosion is also inspiring – presumably made possible at least partly by his book sales.
His portrayal of the dignity and pathos of displaced people arouses a deep sense of unease over the handling by the West of current migrations into Europe and by our materialism which aggravates the problem, to which there is admittedly no simple solution.