The Salt of the Earth

April 18, 2015
Sebastião Salgado in 'The Salt of the Earth' (2014)
Sebastião Salgado in 'The Salt of the Earth' (2014)

When we’d finished watching The Salt of the Earth, my spouse said: “That film should be screened free of charge and everyone encouraged to see it.” This pretty much summed up my feelings as well, although I can’t imagine the Abbott government wanting everyone to view a film that speaks so poignantly about the poorest people in the world while foreign aid budgets are being slashed and refugees imprisoned in off-shore detention centres.

It would be marvellous if The Salt of the Earth was seen by everyone, but it will probably be seen by hardly anyone, as it is being screened exclusively at the Dendy Newtown in Sydney, and Cinema Nova in Melbourne. It may pop up elsewhere if there is sufficient demand, otherwise you’ll have to wait for the disc or the download.

The film tells the story of Sebastiao Salgado, one of the world’s greatest living photographers. Few would dispute his stature as one of the great photographers of all time. The director is that Jekyll-and-Hyde of the cinema, Wim Wenders, who alternates between masterpieces and painful self-indulgences. Encouraged by his excellent documentary on cheoreographer, Pina Bausch (2011), I recently watched Notebook on Cities and Clothes, his 1989 film on fashion designer, Yohji Yamamoto, which meandered aimlessly from start to finish.

This time, working in collaboration with his subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wenders is once again in top form. It helps, of course, that the protagonist of the documentary has led an extraordinary life, producing images that only have to be flashed on screen to make viewers feel they are seeing things they could have never previously imagined.

In 2002 Susan Sontag penned a notorious critique of Salgado in which she argued: “With a subject conceived on this scale compassion can only flounder – and make abstract. But all politics, like all history, is concrete.”

When I first read this it seemed spectacularly insensitive. It’s also paradoxical. How can politics and history be “concrete” while a photograph is “abstract”? Sontag is arguing against the aestheticisation of human suffering, but she almost implies that one cannot be both an artist and a compassionate being.

The man we meet in The Salt of the Earth is the living refutation of Sontag’s scruples. Born in a provincial town in Brazil in 1944, Salgado grew up observing the effects of poverty, rampant development and political oppression. He trained as an economist, getting his Masters from the University of Sao Paolo, then going on to work for the World Bank in Paris. Photography crept up on him, initially as a hobby when he visited Africa on bank business.

In 1973 Salgado and his wife, Lélia, decided he would take a risk and become a full-time photographer. From that time he began work on the monumental projects for which he is known today. He has travelled for years in the most remote parts of South America or Africa; lived for months in isolated communities; documented the full horror of war, famine and dispossession in Ethiopia and the Congo.

This film takes us through each of these extended journeys by means of the black-and-white images Salgado produced. At no stage did he become hardened to the suffering he witnessed. In fact, after seeing the massacres in Rwanda and the Congo, Salgado tells how he grew sick at heart, convinced that mankind was hopelessly addicted to violence and hatred.

The surprising antidote came in the form of a return to his family property in Brazil, which had been rendered barren after Sebastiao’s father sold the trees for timber. The Salgados set out to correct the damage, planting trees and restoring the soil. Within ten years the estate had undergone a miraculous revival. It has now been gifted to Brazil as a national park.

This work inspired Salgado’s most recent project, Genesis (2013), which saw him travel to the ends of the earth photographing scenes of nature that echoed the primal beginnings of the planet before civilsation had left its destructive imprint. The results are as awe-inspiring as anything he has ever made, with the only people included being those who live in harmony with nature.

Contra Susan Sontag it is crucial that Salgado’s photographs have a powerful aesthetic impact, for we will look longer and harder at a photo imbued with a sense of wonder than we will at a mere snapshot. It seems absurd to argue that a photo of a refugee camp or a mine can’t also be a precisely ordered composition. Images of poverty and injustice devoid of art belong to the realm of politics – and that’s a field that tends to divide us rather than stimulate awareness of a shared humanity.

The Salt of the Earth
Directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Written by Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, David Rosier & Camille Delafon
Starring Sebastiao Salgado, Juliani Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, Lélia Wanick Salgado
France/Brazil/Italy, rated M, 110 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th April, 2015.