I’ve been a fan of Sebastião Salgado’s work for decades, probably beginning with his photographs of the gold miners of Brazil’s Serra Pelada in the mid-80s. Beyond being beautiful images, they are powerful statements about humanity and as such are incredible social documentary. The Salt of the Earth looks at his entire career and the ways that his work has influenced his life, as well as its impact on international audiences who view starving refugees in Africa or Bosnians fleeing to Croatia through his lens. He is truly one of the greatest living photojournalists and this documentary directed by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Pina, Buena Vista Social Club) along with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado takes you on his incredible life journey. It is beautiful, adventure-filled, and both heartbreaking and uplifting.
His life as a photographer began late. He’d gotten a degree in economics, and took photos on business trips. Then prodded by his very wise wife Lelia, he ditched what would have been a lucrative career with the World Bank and followed his passion, shooting photos of big themes, each of them edited into books by Lelia. He was front and center in some of the biggest human catastrophes of the last few decades — oil well fires in Kuwait, genocide in Rwanda, horrifying famine in the Sahel, and his photographs put a human face on every story. The film is narrated by Wenders and Salgado’s son, with Salgado himself telling the stories of the iconic photos and his growing disappointment with humanity’s treatment of one another. But by the end he has found a way to use his immense gifts for more uplifting themes. It is a surprising turn in the film and quite welcomed.
I’d recommend this film to all lovers of photography, and also to people who appreciate humans with a social conscience and tales of redemption. The Salt of the Earth also highlights the importance of a great partner in the making of art. Without Lelia, Salgado would never have started the work or marketed his photographs or edited his books or ultimately ended up in an amazing place in his life. It is a beautiful story, incredibly well told. See it in a theater if you can. The images deserve it.