Even those who do not share a passion for photography will be mesmerized by The Salt of the Earth (http://sonyclassics.com/thesaltoftheearth/), a richly absorbing account of the life’s work of the great social photographer Sebastião Salgado co-directed by his eldest son Juliano and German master filmmaker Wim Wenders. The Cannes prize winner and Oscar-nominated documentary relates how he left Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1969 for Europe, abandoned a career as a World Bank economist, and settled in Paris where, together with wife and research partner Lélia, he pursued a globe-spanning vocation behind the camera.
Wenders introduces us to this journey through the lens with a series of awesome shots taken of Brazil’s Serra Pelada goldmine, an enormous pit worked solely by the slave-like muscle power of 50,000 miners. The epic multi-year projects conceived by Salgado took him to every part of the earth. An early collection brought him back to his beloved native South America. Others that followed focused on the world of workers, the “exodus” of refugees and displaced persons, the ravages of drought and famine in Sub-Saharan Africa. One on the aftermath of the First Gulf War shows Calgary firefighters extinguishing Kuwait oil wells set aflame by Saddam Hussein.
The images, all black-and-white, are striking in their depth and intensity, often possessed of a terrible beauty. Salgado’s gaze into the human condition engages and challenges the viewer. His faith in humanity was shaken in the 1990s after recording atrocities from the Rwandan genocide and fratricidal Balkan wars. These apocalyptic scenes of horror exposed a heart of darkness that made him despair of our species. He experienced a sickness of the soul that only lifted when he turned his gaze to indigenous peoples and the wonders of nature. The result, “Genesis,” was his “tribute to the planet.” He and Lélia also returned to Brazil, restoring and reforesting his grandfather’s land, now a national park.
Salgado’s passionate eye penetrates both the worst sufferings and the most sublime aspects of humanity and our world, leaving a legacy that demands to be pondered as well as seen.