The photography of humanity.
– Gabriel García Márquez
There’s a moment two-thirds the way through watching Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders’ stunning new documentary about the work of Sebastiao Salgado, when you feel crushed by the same existential despair felt by the photographer in 1995 when, after years photographing famine, war and genocide in Africa and Europe, he witnessed atrocious scenes in Rwanda and the Congo that left him shaken to the core, despairing of any hope for humanity.
Working with Médecins Sans Frontieres, he had seen tens of thousands of both Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi refugees flee famine and genocide, only to die from hunger and disease or be murdered in roadside massacres. He abandoned photography, questioning his work as a social photographer:
I did not believe in anything. I did not believe in the salvation of the human race. I had seen so much brutality. I didn’t trust any more in anything. I just felt that we humans are terrible animals.
But after Rwanda, slowly – and largely due to the influence of his wife Lélia – the Salgados embarked on two projects with which Wenders concludes this beautifully-composed film, so that Salt of the Earth draws to a close on a considerably more positive and optimistic note.
Sebastião Salgado was born in in farming country Brazil in 1944. He studied economics and began his career as an economist, travelling to Africa on missions for the World Bank, before discovering his true metier as a photographer in 1973 while experimenting with his wife’s camera. He gave up his well-paid employment, and ever since the couple have worked together on a series of photographic projects concerned with humanistic themes, with Lélia editing and producing collections and exhibitions of images brought back by her husband from carefully-planned expeditions to all corners of the globe.
In The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders and his co-director, Salgado’s eldest son Julian, trace Sebastião’s career from his first big project, Other Americas, a survey of his home continent that captured images of changing rural landscapes and intimate portraits that reflected the labour, domestic lives and shared beliefs of the people of Latin America, to his most recent project, Genesis, which focuses on the grandeur of the natural world.
The film opens with a series of images which Wim Wenders says were the first photographs of Salgado’s that he saw. These apocalyptic scenes were captured at the Serra Pelada mine in Brazil during a gold rush as massive and as mad as the great 19th century gold rushes in Australia and America. After a nugget of gold was found on the banks of a remote river, 100,000 miners converged on the area and dug by hand in a huge pit. In Salgado’s photographs the scene looks like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, a modern Dante’s Inferno. Just as they transfixed Wenders, it was these images that first drew my attention to Salgado.
Gallery: the Serra Pelada mine
The Serra Pelada sequence displays all characteristics of the film that follows: from superb high definition images, Salgado’s face emerges through the photograph as a ghostly presence – reflected in the image while reflecting upon the circumstances of its making. In this powerful and very direct way, Wenders reveals Salgado’s intense personal investment in his work.
Speaking of the gold mine images, Salgado says, ‘There, I saw before me in a split second, the history of mankind. The history of the construction of the pyramids, the Tower of Babel’. But he also adds something that I hadn’t previously understood about these pictures:
They may look like slaves, but there was not a single slave. If there was slavery there, it was the desire to be rich. Everyone wanted to be rich. There you could find everything: intellectuals, lawyers, farm employees, city workers …
For Salgado, what was hiding in the sacks hauled up flimsy ladders on the shoulders of innumerable men was nothing less than a chosen slavery.
A photographer is literally someone drawing with light. Someone who writes and rewrites the world with light and shadow.
– Wim Wenders
If you put many photographers in one place, they’ll all take very different pictures. Each one forms their own way of seeing according to their history and the very different places from which they come. Everyone has their own way of seeing, according to their own story.
– Sebastião Salgado
The Salt of Earth traces Salgado’s own story: a left-wing student in the 1960s, after gaining a degree in economics he and Leila left Brazil to take refuge in France after the military dictatorship seized power. For a while he worked as an economist for the International Coffee Organization and the World Bank, but then found his calling in photography. Nevertheless, he regards the time he spent studying economics as valuable, providing him with a solid grounding in political economy and social issues that would inform his photographic projects.
His first major project was Other Americas – the result of eight years he spent travelling through Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia at a time of profound social upheaval in Latin America. It was the time of liberation theology, of farmers organizing themselves into cooperatives, of landless labourers occupying estates.
Gallery: Other Americas
In the film, Salgado talks of the time he spent with the Saraguro, an indigenous people of southern Ecuador who lived ‘in another rhythm of time: everything was so slow, another way of thinking, another speed’, who were ‘very religious’ but also ‘great drinkers’.
Looking at this image of a Mexican musician, Salgado muses that ‘the strength of a portrait is that in a split second we understand a little of the life of the person photographed. The eyes speak volumes, the expression of the face. When you do a portrait, is not you alone who takes the picture. The person offers the photo’.
While working on Other Americas, Salgado would disappear for long periods. His son Julian grew up with a father who was almost always absent. Each time Sebastiao returned home to see his family and edit photos with Lelia, the photographer seemed like a great adventurer to his son.
‘And jump cut! Thirty years later, finally, I joined my father in one of his missions.’ This is Julian speaking at the start of a section of the film where we see father and son in Siberia, attempting to photograph walruses for the recent Genesis project. Frustrated by a polar bear that lurks around, scaring off the walruses, Salgado is reduced to snapping the bear from the shelter where the team are holed up. Frustrated, Salgado makes this observation which sums what makes his images so ditinctive:
We have a document of the bear, but we do not have a photo. This is not right. There’s nothing behind. Nothing to frame the photo, to suggest the landscape.
After the end of the military dictatorship, Salgado returned to Brazil and soon embarked on his next project which took him for six months to the drought-ridden north-east of Brazil where poverty was endemic and children died in great numbers from preventable diseases.
Salgado says of this image of a child lying in a tiny coffin, its eyes wide open:
These are children who died before baptism. It is believed that unbaptized children will not go to heaven, but will wander in limbo. They are buried with their eyes open, otherwise it is believed they will wander for eternity.
In the north-east, Salgado witnessed the great movement of landless peasants, ‘people of great moral force’ and great physical strength, despite their poverty. He saw how the aridity of the area forced people to leave for good and migrate to cities in the south. It was his first encounter with a phenomenon which would inform future projects – the great migratory movements of humankind in recent decades. We saw Salt of the Earth in the same week as hysteria and misinformation swirled around the situation in Calais, making Salgado’s images deeply pertinent.
Salgado has made it a central purpose of his work to document how hundreds of millions of people across the planet have been uprooted from their homes by poverty, wars and repression in recent decades. Some flee to save their lives; others risk their lives to escape destitution. Many end up in refugee camps like the Jungle at Calais; only a lucky few find a better life in an affluent country far from their own.
Salgado’s photographs have revealed how almost everything that happens on earth is somehow connected: we are all affected by the widening gap between rich and poor, by the mechanization of agriculture, by destruction of the environment, by wars, intolerance and repression.
The suffering Salgado saw in the north-east changed him, and his role as a photographer took on new meaning. His next project would lead him across the Sahel region of northern Africa, during the famine years of 1984 to 1986, documenting a story about hunger – which he came to see as ‘mostly a problem of distribution not simply a natural disaster.’
The pictures in his next collection, Sahel, showed people who were not just helpless (though they desperately needed help): they were caring, fleeing, hiding, grieving – and burying their dead. The Sahel images are direct and profoundly disturbing depictions of suffering and starvation. Death is constantly present. They are extremely hard to look at. At the beginning of the film, Wim Wenders had spoken of how one image from Sahel had moved him to tears when he first saw it, and how a reproduction of Salgado’s portrait of a woman, a refugee in Mali blinded by sandstorms and eye infections, still hangs above his desk today.
In the film, Salgado pauses over this image of a boy, alone in a parched landscape but for his dog:
With his little guitar in hand, he wears the tattered remains of a shirt, but no pants. Look at his determination, his posture. He is a person who knows where he is going. Looking for other groups of people, with his dog … A boy of eight or nine years.
For his next project Salgado decided that he wanted to ‘pay homage to all the men and women who built our world.’ Sebastian and Lelia researched and planned Workers meticulously. Then he travelled to 26 countries to document the lives of industrial age workers: steelworkers in the Soviet Union, ship-breakers in Bangladesh, fishermen in Galicia and Sicily, car production in India, farmers in Rwanda – and the miners of Serra Pelada.
Salgado unveils the pain, the beauty, and the brutality of the world of work on which everything rests.
– Arthur Miller
Workers is a tribute to human endeavour. Salgado’s photographs bestow dignity and affirm the enduring spirit of working women and men. The collection aimed to be ‘an archaeological exploration of the ceaseless human activity at the core of modern civilization.’
Included in the Workers collection were dramatic images of the men who fought the Iraq oil well fires left blazing after Saddam Hussein’s forces retreated from Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991. In the film, Salgado recalls a terrible scene he witnessed inside an abandoned garden of the royal family of Kuwait:
We discovered a paradise become a hell. Animals are the first to escape before a catastrophe, if they are free to escape; these could not. It was an oasis, everything was well irrigated. But there were horses, thoroughbreds; they had gone completely mad. Birds that could not fly because their feathers were coated in oil. The Kuwaitis had escaped the disaster, leaving the confined animals, together with the Bedouins, whom they did not consider to be human beings.
Sebastiao and Leila immediately began work on a new project, Migrations, which aimed to document what has become the burning issue of our time – the displacement of entire populations due to war, famine and the impact of globalisation. The project took him to 35 countries and lasted seven years. He journeyed to refugee camps and war zones in Congo and Rwanda, Croatia and Serbia, and the experience left him crushed mentally and emotionally.
Migrations: Rwanda and Congo
In a hundred days in 1994, up to a million Rwandans were slaughtered after extremist Hutus sought to eliminate their ethnic kin, the Tutsis. Salgado was there, gathering material for Migrations, but instead of moving into Rwanda, where people were being hacked to death in churches, he moved “towards life” and the refugees’ struggle for survival. It was the failure of many to survive that finally broke him.
Migrations: former Yugoslavia
Salgado had reached his limit, a point of breakdown. The suffering and the horror he had witnessed led him to conclude:
We humans are a terrible animal; we are extremely violent. Our history is a history of war; it’s an endless story. We should see these images to see how terrible our species is.
This is the point in The Salt Of the Earth with which I began this post: a moment of complete despair, the like of which I think I’ve rarely experienced in the cinema. But the film rejects despair in a reversal of mood that is fundamental and eloquent.
Salgado and Lelia embarked on two remarkable projects. Firstly, to plant nearly 2 million trees to restore subtropical rainforest on the Brazilian farm where Salgado grew up; and second, to launch an epic eight-year project to document landscapes, animals and peoples that have so far escaped the imprint of modern society. ‘Some 46% of the planet is still as it was in the time of genesis,’ Salgado says in the film. The Genesis project and the Instituto Terra established on the Salgado’s land are both dedicated to revealing the beauty of our planet, reversing the damage done to it, and preserving it for the future. As Wenders’ account of these projects unfolds in the last half-hour, the film gains an unexpected sense of possibility set against the suffering and despair we have witnessed.
In the late 1990s, Sebastaio’s father gave him and Lélia the Brazilian cattle ranch where Salgado had spent his childhood. Salgado remembers the place in those days as ‘a complete paradise, more than half of it covered with rain forest. ‘We had incredible birds, jaguars, crocodiles.’ But after decades of deforestation caused by drought and over-grazing cattle, the place had become an ecological disaster: not only the Salgado farm, but the entire region. ‘It was a dead land.’
Lélia suggested that they replant a few trees on the land around the old Salgado farm, and in the last 25 years the Salgados have ended up replanting acres and acres of forest (with the first planting they lost 60%; in the second, 40%; and their success rate just grew). Now they have created a model that others can follow which offers some hope for reversing environmental damage. As Salgado says in the film, ‘It is a great dream: the destruction of nature can be reversed.’
Now, at Instituto Terra, 2.5 million trees have been planted, more than a thousand streams flow again, and wildlife has returned – even jaguars. The land is no longer owned by the Salgados, but is now a national park that belongs to everyone.
Sometimes, we look at a tree and just think about its strength, its beauty. But everything depends on it: our water, our oxygen. A tree is home to all kinds of life – ants, small insects, cicadas.
We see Sebastaio inspecting three month old seedlings and marvelling that they will become trees 40 to 50 metres tall – trees that will live for 400 or 500 years. Maybe, muses Salgado, this provides us with a way in which we can measure eternity.
The joy of seeing the trees grow revived Sebastiao’s passion for photography. With Lélia, he began to think of a new photographic project on the environment. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘the first idea that came to us was to denounce the destruction of forests and the pollution of the oceans.’
But gradually they start thinking: ‘Let’s do a different project – a tribute to the planet.’ And they discover with surprise that across nearly half of the planet, life continues much as it did ‘in the time of Genesis.’ And so Salgado travels to unspoilt places, his purpose ‘not be to photograph what is destroyed but what is still pristine, to show what we must hold and protect.’
For 8 years, I had time to see and understand the most important thing: I am nature as much as a turtle, a tree, or a stone.
In Salt of the Earth, Salgado speaks of how close he felt to the animals he photographed. Examining his photo of the the detail of the leg of an iguana he says, ‘Looking at the structure of the hand, I see that the iguana is also my cousin: we come from the same cell.’ He recalls a moment on his travels when he was very tired and fell asleep on a beach. Feeling something touching his leg he opened his eyes saw that it was a sea lion. Another came on his other side: ‘In the end, we were three sea lions.’
Salgado describes the extraordinary gaze of a mountain gorilla in Rwanda, seeing his own reflection in the lens of Salgado’s camera: ‘I took a picture, he put his finger in the mouth. He was looking for the first time in a mirror. He began to understand that it was him. He was acknowledging his image.’ He also became friends with a whale:
I could touch it. And it was amazing. That skin so sensitive! While I was stroking it, I saw her tail shaking, 35 metres away: a phenomenal sensitivity. Our vessel was small, not more than seven metres. I knew that she was strong enough to sink us. But she never touched the boat, never!
If Salgado expresses his empathy with the animals he observed, Genesis also maintains the empathy for the human condition revealed in his earlier photo collections. He travelled to meet isolated communities of humans who continue to live in harmony with nature: the isolated Zo’é in Brazil; the Nenets of Siberia; and tribes of West Papua. All of these groups face persecution by governments, the theft of their lands and resources, or the threat of devastating epidemics.
The reindeer-herding Nenets, for example, live in Siberia’s Arctic north, a remote, wind-blasted place of permafrost, serpentine rivers and dwarf shrubs. Today, their way of life is severely affected by oil and gas extraction and climate change. Their migration routes are disrupted and pollution threatens the quality of their grazing pastures.
I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I am just a photographer. I wanted to show how some people are living in equilibrium with the planet, as we did thousands of years ago. I was surprised at how similar we all are; I wanted to show that even the most isolated group of people are the same as we are.
Salt of the Earth showcases Salgado’s staggering photography in the best way possible. To see his work presented in crisp, high definition images on the wide screen serves to emphasize his stature as a photographer. Wenders’ survey of his entire career drives home the breadth of his work, with its focus on unrestrained development, the destruction of forests and wildlife, and deepening inequality that exacerbates war, poverty and migration.
But Salt of the Earth is also a beautifully composed film – perhaps the best Wenders has produced since Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities and Paris Texas in the 1970s. However, some may argue that Wenders and his co-director Julian Salgado have not produced a fully-rounded portrait of their subject – skirting controversies that have surrounded his work.
Salgado’s photography has evoked intense responses, not all of them complimentary. In 1991, in a New Yorker article about the Sahel photographs, Ingrid Sischy wrote:
Salgado is far too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures—with finding the ‘grace’ and ‘beauty’ in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feeling of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.
And in another New Yorker essay, Looking at War, the late Susan Sontag referred to Salgado as a photographer who ‘specializes in world misery., noting that he had come under steady attack ‘for producing spectacular, beautifully composed big pictures’ which tend to focus on ‘the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness.’Discussing the Migration pictures, Sontag wrote:
Taken in thirty-five countries, Salgado’s migration pictures group together, under this single heading, a host of different causes and kinds of distress. Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention.
The criticisms made by Sontag and others might have been weighed in The Salt of the Earth as part of a deeper analysis of why Salgado’s images have such power. For myself, I believe that Salgado’s care in composing his images and judging the balance of light and dark within them does not detract from their meaning.
If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.
– Sebastião Salgado
Unlike many photo-journalists, Salgado does not shoot quickly, and leave. As we see in The Salt of the Earth, he spends some considerable time living with or accompanying those he photographs. I do not see that any of his pictures are ‘insulting to the people being portrayed’, as Ingrid Sischy wrote in her essay. Instead, his photographs are compositionally arranged to emphasise the greatness and dignity of manual labour, and even of individuals in their suffering. Salgado says:
The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.
The controversy surrounding his work is a testimony to the importance of Salgado as a photographer. In the final analysis, our judgement should surely rest on the motivations which have driven his work, and the conclusions that can be drawn from looking at his images:
Salgado is dangerous because … he begins to reveal an image of the operation of global capital – seeing it as a single system with its components, human and mechanical, placed on a large monochrome map. Workers challenges the old clichés about the Third World, of static, helpless, universally poor, rural and pre-industrial societies whose women are suppressed and housebound. Migrations celebrates the actions of those people to liberate themselves from economic dependency, wage slavery and hunger. Working people’s poverty and production is the source of the wealth of the minority, their fate may eventually become that of more and more people in the North; and this is precisely the danger of bringing the two halves together, even in the form of coffee-table books.
– Julian Stallbrass, Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism (pdf)
Or, as Salgado himself once succinctly put it: ‘The First World is in a crisis of excess. The Third World in a crisis of need.’ There’s short, 7-minute video on YouTube in which the photographer Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to ‘expand the circle of understanding’:
Photography gives us that opportunity. There’s a reality that we are all more connected globally. We have to know about each other.
A final thought. The salt of the earth? We humans are the salt of the earth, but as with the amount of salt we add to food, people can enhance or destroy the places they inhabit.
Or, maybe, the salt is something else. In 1997, Eduardo Galeano wrote an essay for a collection of Salgado’s pictures, An Uncertain Grace. In it he noted that in Portuguese salgado means ‘salty’. Link that to the last pages of Galeano’s book, Open Veins of Latin America. Writing in 1978, when the dictatorships of Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil still held power, Galeano spoke of the system of economic exploitation in those countries, enforced by arbitrary terror, designed to reshape citizens as unthinking automatons. The enemy of such repressive regimes, he wrote, is memory (the theme that activates his great trilogy Memory of Fire). So, writes Galeano, ‘the zombie is made to eat without salt; salt is dangerous, it could awaken him.’
Earth by Derek Walcott
Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,
to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,
the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver
running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants
cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
you can never be dispossessed.
Clip: ‘What I saw profoundly moved me’
Sebastião Salgado: The silent drama of photography (TED talk)
- The Salt of the Earth: artsDesk review
- The Salt of the Earth: Slant review
- Salgado’s Genesis: an environmental call to arms (this blog)
- Sebastiao Salgado: extensive slideshow of his images: part 1 and part 2
- Wim Wenders: misfit, outsider and the man who helped America to see itself (Observer)
- The Salt of the Earth: the Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado double bill (Guardian)
- Eduardo Galeano: enemy of lies, indifference and forgetfulness (this blog)