The Salt Of The Earth / Das Salz der Erde (2014)

Das Salz der Erde

A retrospective of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s The Salt Of The Earth sees man and mankind come to life.

Paradise Lost

by Mark Wilshin

The Salt Of The Earth

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Co-directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, The Salt Of The Earth offers a retrospective of the life and works of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. What at first appears as a personal homage to a friend, as Wenders expresses in voice-over his admiration for the “social photographer and witness of the human condition” is soon however revealed to be Salgado’s own story, captured on film by his son in West Papua and in the Arctic. Commissioned but neatly curated by the outsider, Das Salz der Erde embarks on a journey with Salgado through the chronology of his life and his life’s works.

After studying economics, the young newlywed Sebastião Salgado leaves Brazil’s military dictatorship and heads for France where, after a fledgling career heading towards the World Bank, Salgado, with the support of his wife Lélia, decides to start again as a photographer. Together they research and plan his photographic adventures, from Other Lands an epic odyssey around Latin America, via Exodus and the refugee camps of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia to Genesis – a homage to landscape, life and nature’s ability to repair itself.

In fact, Salgado’s passion seems to be for beautiful infernos – from the tusked walruses battling in a smoky light to the burning oilfields in Kuwait that leave skies darkened, horses robbed of their senses and birds too weighed down by oil to fly. Much like Salgado, The Salt Of The Earth starts with the gold mines of Brazil – a tower of Babel of noise and industry, but soon moves beyond portraits of indigenous peoples to shine a light on workers’ conditions, famine, drought and genocide – each photograph springing into life, scored with cries, murmurs and roars. Always a social photographer, Salgado shoots people – the salt of the earth – and it’s this humanity that draws Wenders to him. But having witnessed the atrocities of mankind, after documenting starving Hutus, who having fled from Rwanda hide out in the forests of the Congo before being massacred, Salgado is no longer able to take photographs, lost to despair.

Until, that is, Salgado returns with his family to Brazil, and to his father’s ranch. No longer the lush paradise of his youth – the trees sold off to pay for his and his sisters’ education – the arid earth is brought back to life by Lélia and the Instituto Terra – a project that began as an idea to lift the family’s spirits and replant the rainforest, but now extends over vast tracts of Brazil. And as the land heals, so too does Salgado – embarking on a new project Genesis, designed to document the stillness of creation. Whether it’s salvation or a retreat into nature, Salgado does find his way back to the salt of the earth all the same, documenting the lost Zo’é people in the Brazilian rainforest. Perhaps without the dramatic beauty of his black and white photographs of hell on earth, but with the lush peacefulness of life in paradise.

Moving between Wenders’ and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s attempts to document or understand the man behind the lens and Sebastião Salgado’s own explanations of his work, we’re treated not only to a cinematic exhibition of Salgado’s photography, but also to the stories that surround them. It’s a coup that finds a visual echo as Salgado is reflected in his own photographs. But every frame here is a photograph, with Wenders’ own documentary camerawork – like the beautiful three-dimensional precision of Pina – standing tall against Salgado’s work, setting the photographer against moody monochrome landscapes before black and white gives way to colour. Documenting one of the greatest living photographers, the bar is high, but rather like the scene in which Salgado is trapped inside a cabin unable, with a grey backdrop of scree, to create anything more than just the photo of a polar bear, The Salt Of The Earth is more than just a documentary about a photographer. It’s a journey through one man’s way of seeing the world that might just change the way you see it too.

The Salt Of The Earth is released on 17th July 2015 in the UK

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