Even if you think you don’t know the photographs of Sebastião Salgado, you’ve probably seen them. In one of his most famous pictures, taken in the mid-1980s in Mali, a woman whose face is half-hidden by a dark, rough-textured cotton veil, her bearing as elegant as anything you’d see in fashion photography, appears to gaze off into the middle distance. When you look closely, you realize that she can’t be gazing at anything at all, at least not in the way we see with our eyes: Her left eye is clouded, obviously sightless. The image is both arresting and moving — you want to stop short of calling it “beautiful,” which implies patronization, objectification, and all other sorts of –ations that we’ve been schooled to avoid. Susan Sontag, in fact, railed against what she saw as the “inauthenticity of the beautiful” in Salgado’s work. But there’s no way around it: This is a stunning photograph, complex in all the ways that true beauty can often be.
We see that photograph, and many more, in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s bracing documentary The Salt of the Earth, which covers Sebastião Salgado’s globetrotting career from its beginning, in the 1970s, to the present day. Juliano is Sebastião’s son, and while the film makes frequent reference to the reality that the elder Salgado spent long stretches away from his child, the affection and respect between them is implicit in the film’s tone. What’s more, Juliano has accompanied his father on several recent trips around the world, his documentarian’s camera in tow. Together, he and Wenders have fashioned their own marvelously detailed portrait of a man and an artist whose compassion has informed his way of looking. Whether Salgado was photographing mud-covered workers at a Brazilian gold mine in the 1980s or documenting even greater horrors in the midst of the Rwandan genocide, his work stands as a record of many, many situations and events we’d rather turn away from — and yet through his camera lens, he coaxes us to look.
Salgado, born in farming country in Brazil in 1944, began his career as an economist but shifted into photography while living in Paris in 1973. As The Salt of the Earth tells us, it was his wife, Lélia, Juliano’s mother, who first brought the camera into the household. Salgado took to it instantly, and he and Lélia, who edits and produces her husband’s photographic projects (and more), have worked together ever since. The Salt of the Earth traces Salgado’s career, from early pictures he took in Niger, among them one of a young mother, her baby peeking out curiously from the edge of her cloak, to his more recent work on a project he calls Genesis, which focuses on the grandeur of the natural world. Grandeur is there for sure in his portrait of a Galapagos tortoise, proudly wearing the same wrinkled turtleneck he’s been sporting for hundreds of years.
Salgado’s work, as Wenders and the younger Salgado reveal it to us, is both universal and deeply personal. In sections of the film, we’ll be gazing at one of Salgado’s pictures — an image of displaced and starving people trekking across the Sahara, for instance — as we listen to him describe the underlying circumstances of the photograph. Then, gradually, we see Salgado himself, with his bald head and penetrating eyes, emerge through a portion of the photograph in a ghostly dissolve. It’s a potent effect, a very direct way of suggesting Salgado’s intense personal investment in his work. His photographs of Rwandan refugees, taken in the 1990s, are particularly piercing: The velvety texture of his images sometimes seems at odds with the intense suffering and starvation he’s depicting. Many of these pictures are disturbingly graphic. But would they be more effective if they were “ugly” or badly composed? And bearing witness to this kind of suffering exacts a toll. Though Salgado has traveled the world taking pictures, he has returned to Africa again and again, moved by the plight of human beings in the continent’s more troubled countries. After his time in Rwanda, he was moved to despair. He expresses his anguish outright in the film: “We humans are terrible animals.”
As a restorative break, Lélia suggested that the family return to Brazil and replant a few trees on the land around the old Salgado farm, which had turned into a brown, barren stretch. One or two trees led to hundreds more, and in the past twenty years the Salgados have, almost miraculously, replanted acres and acres of forest, creating a model that offers some hope for reversing the environmental damage humankind has done, in Brazil and elsewhere. Wenders — whose last feature was the vibrant 2011 documentary Pina, about his friend, the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch — discovered Salgado’s pictures nearly 25 years ago. He was so moved by the photographer’s work that he bought two prints, although it was years later before the two would meet in person. The movie Wenders and Juliano have made is a tribute that feels both grand and modest in scale: Just as Salgado’s photographs do, it extends the notion of friends and family to include every citizen of the world.