Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
Writers: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
To a question often asked of travelers — “Why do you travel?” — Tiziano Terzani, the celebrated Italian writer, offers a challenge: “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”
What acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado brought back from a lifetime of travel documenting ordinary and extraordinary human events all over the world has been turned into The Salt of the Earth, a big screen feature film by Wim Wenders in collaboration with Sebastiao’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Wenders’ filming gives movement to Salgado’s still photos, intimately engaging audiences in one visual amazement of human events after another. Wenders begins the film with Salgado’s face hovering like a ghost among his photos and leaves him at the end sitting in a misty forest, looking away from the camera. In The Salt of the Earth, it is Salgado’s photographs – his writing with light – and not Salgado’s life that holds center stage.
With a clever apparatus, Wim Wenders mounts his camera behind a screen of Salgado’s photos, thereby shooting Salgardo looking his photos and speaking, seemingly extemporaneously and philosophically, about the sights he’s seen. Wenders’ invention enhances Salgado’s gift as a natural narrator. We are engaged like old friends in his reveries and reflections about what he sees in his mind’s eye as he views his photos. We sometimes look directly at him while he speaks through the peephole Wenders created. Other times, we look at his photos while he describes his thoughts and feelings while he was taking the pictures. As he speaks, familiar human events headlined in the news take on an aura of significance far beyond information. What Salgado gives us is the human connection beneath the events, having brought back from his travels an empathic history, ancient, recently past and present. There is no message of activism in Salgado’s photos, just the magnificence and horror of what he saw.
In the opening scenes of The Salt of the Earth, we peer over Salgado’s shoulder into a cavernous gold mine in Brazil and stare down into the every day activity of hundreds, maybe thousands of men climbing steep ladders with sacks of dirt on their shoulders. They look like ants engaged in a Sisyphean task, tiny men climbing upward, bearing a brown heavy lump to the top only to run down and climb again. Though the photos arouse an association of men living out a punishment of the gods or slaves tied to an unending bondage, the men are free men. They are, in fact, chasing a dream, hoping that, one lucky day, they come up with a bag of gold instead of a bag of dirt. They come from all walks of life, working together, every move a motion of coordination maximizing each man’s elusive chance to elevate his life. It is a microcosm of human hope caught so expertly that the still photos seem to move before our eyes.
Sebastiao Salgado describes himself as a photographer working with light and shadows to capture images of a world that’s close to the one in which we live but that we don’t often see. As he talks about the men on ladders, our imagination follows his into visions of the men who built archeological marvels. We take a rare peek into the historical making of culture, civilization and the individuals who have carried us here. There is no sound of machines in the gold mine. Only the murmur of human voices can be heard. He links mining to the lost realities of creating monuments like the pyramids. For a moment, the raising of The Sphinx and The Tower of Babel is palpable. A multitude of voices merge into one continuous hum of making. Salgado’s black and white photos, deep voice and searching vision have deftly drawn us into a feeling of connection with humankind without location, time or circumstance.
Salgado has brought back visceral insight into the wonders of human construction that, across the years, persist as impertinently as humankind’s dark acts of destruction. The sensational, barely believable sight of Iraq’s mass burning of oil rigs in Kuwait captures the metaphorical power and grief of humankind since the discovery of fire. The black and white photos, somehow, rage hotter and more terrifying than if they were in color. And the photos of the brave men at work in the oil fields are truly wordless, covered in a suffocating black gold and revealing the paradox of good and evil that takes your breath away. How does anyone reckon with a sight that combines the hideous capacity to light such fires and the astonishing ability to put them out?
Perhaps the answer is to ground the larger story in a personal one. In The Salt of the Earth, Salgado’s reportage is inter-spliced with footage accumulated by Salgado’s oldest son, Ribierdo, who wished to recapture childhood years that he’d missed when Salgado traveled most of the time. As a young man, Ribierdo accompanied his father like an anthropological documentarian, filming his father photographing primitive tribes deep in the jungle and rare scenes of animals far in the Artic. With Ribierdo’s filming, we see Salgado exerting the tremendous patience necessary for photos of exotic subjects in extreme circumstances to appear so spontaneous. With Ribierdo’s current footage shot in color, the feeling of a timeless continuity between now and past in Salgado’s black and white photography is further emphasized.
Africa called out to Salgado numerous times and he was there to photograph the trails of despairing retreats and death in the aftermath of its infamous massacres. And like Icarus, flying so close to the sun melted his wings, Salgado’s brave pursuits led to a fall. After covering the genocide in Rwanda on foot, stepping over bodies and experiencing the devastating effects on people scavenging for life in refugee camps, Salgado couldn’t pick up a camera. Only with an inspired idea from his wife, Leila, to bring the tropical forest of his childhood land in Brazil back to life was he able to bring himself back to life. Together, they launched a ten-year project to turn the drought stricken ground into the lush fields he had once known. To pay further tribute to the regenerative power he’d found, Salgado and Leila began the project, Genesis. To photograph nature, he risked his reputation as a social photographer and learned new skills. He pays homage to nature in Genesis, a large format book collection of photos showing nature, animals and peoples in awe-inspiring beauty.
Sebastiao Salgado has been honored by the Royal Photographic Society in Britain, earning the accolade of preeminent social photographer of our times. He’s been named a UNESCO Ambassador. Wim Wenders, circling Salgado cinematically as he once did Berlin’s golden angel of immortality in his award winning film, Wings of Desire, does justice to the mythic presence of Salgado’s observational spirit as few could. Julian Ribierdo Salgado, determined to know a father who’d been missing most of his life, followed Sebastiao into the wild with a movie camera to bring the past into the present. Leila Salgado, wife and mother and partner-in-artistry, is arguably the angel above Salgado’s photographic magistracy, providing a regenerative ending to a life and a film that is as disturbing as it is beautiful to watch.
Over his lifetime, Salgado photographed hidden indigenous tribes, famines, refugee camps, laborers, genocides, wild animals and the burning wells of Kuwait. His and other photos flickered in the news and aroused curiosity, but The Salt of the Earth embeds his work in a story that closes the gap of global distance, making his journey our journey. He spent years on the theme of workers around the world, documenting the dirty work that we know is being done, know that we depend on but can barely stand to behold. He joined families forced from their homes by war, walked through miles of dead Rwandans along the road after the massacre and shot photos over the shoulders of Doctors Without Borders as they brought dehydrated skeletons back to life. It’s shocking that he photographed so many off the beaten path, in plain sight miserable human events. Sebastiao Salgado makes darkness visible in places few people ever venture.
When I went back to view the film a second time, many of Salgado’s disturbing photos were still in my mind and I was a bit reluctant to revisit. But I was quickly turned around. The Salt of the Earth is not a grim film to watch. To the contrary, I was swept past my dark memories of the first viewing and into a reverence for the ferocity of the human spirit. For me, Salgado’s photos merge with the words of T.S. Eliot, reminding me to praise while shaking my fist at atrocities:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.