The Salt of the Earth – Through the Eyes of a Audacious Artist


German film-maker Wim Wenders’ fascination on artists is pretty much evident as he has previously documented the life & work of artists (“Buena Vista Social Club”, “Pina” etc). With Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Salt of the Earth” (2014), Wenders has once again forayed into capturing the artistic triumphs of a photojournalist. And, Wenders reflects that this artist is much aware of the camera that’s focused on him. He wryly notes “This one shoots back”. Sebastian Salgado, the celebrated Brazilian photographer is now in his 70’s, who for more than four decades has documented some of the most harrowing events of humanity’s greatest failures.

More than two decades back, Wim Wenders came across the works of Selgado, especially the dark, rough-textured pictures of thousands of diggers working in a dangerous, muddy gold mine. In one moving picture, we witness an aerial shot of dirt-caked prospectors stretching as far as our vision takes us. Each of Salgado’s portraits is unique, resonating individuality rather than anonymity. But, Wenders isn’t just interested in the thought process of Salgado’s photos. He wants to capture the outlook of an artist, who has very closely witness both the depths of inhumanity and beauty of nature. For that purpose, Wenders co-directed the documentary with Salgado’s photographer son, Julian Ribiero Salgado to bestow his subject a personal valence.


Sebastian Salgado was born in 1944 in Brazil and grew up with seven sisters. Due to political unrest, Salgado moved to Paris in the mid 1960’s and pursued a career as economist. It was Salgado’s wife, Leila, who brought the camera into household. Salgado first picture was obviously of his wife Leila. The striking and moody first picture showcased that he is a naturally gifted artist, who not only captures the moment, but also the essence that lingers behind it. He subsequently decided to leave the pleasures of upper middle-class life and bought photographic equipments. Salgado started to work on long projects that took him to all the hapless places around the world. For months or years, he stayed from his wife and two children.


Initially, Salgado’s trips more or less were like pilgrimages, where he captured cultures beyond the reach of Western ideals. His work titled “The Other Americas” provided a window into lives of the oppressed and proud inhabitants of Northeast Brazil, Peru, Mexico, and other Latin American nations. In a voice-over, Salgado recollects on the remarkable events behind each astounding photographic images. Director Wenders courses through different period of Salgado’s work in a balanced manner recounting his compassion and often experienced heart-breaking moments. A great portion of Salgado’s work was dedicated to Kuwaiti oil fires, starvation in Ethiopia & Sudan, Rwandan genocide, and the brutal massacres in Yugoslavia. Salgado striking images often bear witness to neglected & persecuted members of the society. His pictures never recoiled from looking at death & humanity at its most grotesque form.

Salgado says that the things he saw in Rwanda (in the mid 1990’s) infected his soul very much and goes on state that ‘salvation’ is never possible for the human race. He returned to his native farmland in Brazil, and found some solace by a project, where they replanted trees and vegetation around his barren farmland. Through Salgado’s reforestation program (known as ‘Instituto Terra’, Salgado and Leila sought to restore subtropical rainforests in Brazil), Wenders looks at his subject’s rejuvenation through nature, which gradually helped restore faith on mankind. In the past few years, the couple has replanted acres and acres of forest. Around the same time, Salgado started to work on a project called “Genesis”, where he pictured the grandeur of nature. He states that the project was ‘to pay tribute to the planet’.


Wim Wenders, of course, fails to interrogate on his subjects’ ‘Euro-centric ideas’. On the Yugoslavia wars, Salgado observes, “Violence and brutality are not the monopoly of remote countries. It happened right here in Europe, ex-Yugoslavia. It was very shocking.” The documentary also gets a bit imbalanced, whenever the co-director chronicles about his absent father and the familial turmoil.

“The Salt of the Earth” (110 minutes) is a moving portrait of an intrepid artist, whose lens saw through people’s sufferings. It is also a story of a man who has relinquished optimism, despite journeying through all of man-made catastrophes.


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