This is the second documentary about a photographer that I’ve watched this week, and as you’d expect both of the featured artists exhibit different, but equally fascinating, levels of dedication to their art; however where Vivian Maier worked in her spare time and mainly concentrated on Chicagoans, the subject here – Brazilian Sebastião Salgado – has spent more than forty years travelling the world as an acclaimed social documentary photographer, reporting on famine, war, the lives of refugees and the dispossessed from dozens of countries.
The Salt Of The Earth primarily serves as a life and career retrospective, and is co-directed by Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado with German playwright and filmmaker Wim Wenders, a renowned landscape photographer in his own right. Wenders explains in his calm, slow, voiceover that he bought a print back in the 1980s when he saw Salgado’s famous photographs of the gold mines in Serra Pelada, and therefore jumped at the chance of helping Juliano complete the film he was making.
Much of the footage shows Salgado as he works on his most recent completed project Genesis, a typically giant book of monochromatic images that took nine years to make. Its focus is on the unaltered natural world, specifically landscapes, wildlife and human communities that continue to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures, and this passage in the photographer’s life is linked to his own conservation work at the family farm, now a national park in Brazil.
Wenders opts for black and white for some of the wide-angle landscape shots as an homage to his subject, with some gorgeous photography by Hugo Barbier, while the repeated images of Salgado’s weathered face – appearing during interviews set against a black background or occasionally superimposed over his own photographs – reinforce the smart link between form and content; a freeze-frame could easily pass for one of the photographer’s own pictures.
One is left with a strong impression of a remarkable and successful career, whether you wish to measure that success in terms of achievements within the world of professional photography or, perhaps more importantly, the way that Salgado has managed to bring the various plights of millions of suffering people to the attention of the wider world, thereby presumably helping them in ways that are unquantifiable. Wenders may be unequivocal in his support but Salgado barely champions his own achievements, if at all; when he firmly states ‘everyone should see this picture’, for example, it’s because of the nature of the subject matter rather than being a rare moment of self-aggrandisement. He leafs through archival prints and offers illuminating contextual information, growing angrier as the documentary turns to the harrowing work he made during the Rwandan genocide. When viewing these images it’s barely surprising that Salgado questions the worth of the human race as he discusses his time in the country, and it’s obvious why he opted for a change in subject matter as he took on the Genesis project (there’s also the obvious link that latest work shares with Salgado’s previous long-term project, Exodus). It’s a shame that some details of his career are ignored – there’s no mention of the Magnum agency, for example, with which he spent 15 years of his career – but this is arguably still one of the best photography documentaries of recent times, on a par with 2012’s McCullin and 2001’s War Photographer.
Directed by: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders.
Written by: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, David Rosier.
Cinematography: Hugo Barbier, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
Editing: Maxine Goedicke, Rob Myers.
Music: Laurent Petitgand.
Running Time: 110 minutes.