Awe-inspiring doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience of watching Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribiero Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth. With its stunning, often unnerving black & white imagery, this deeply powerful career-retrospective on the life and works of Brazilian social photographer Sebastião Salgado, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar earlier this year, serves as a document of humanity’s capacity for both, barbarism and beauty. This is a rare documentary whose full impact can only be measured when watched on a big screen. But as memorable as the images are, it’s the stories behind the images, narrated by Salgado himself, that leave the deepest imprint.
As we learn from Salgado early on in the film, photography wasn’t something that he pursued growing up. Born and raised in Brazil, he studied economics before moving to Paris to seek a career as an economist. It was only after his wife Lucy bought him a camera that he took up photography as a hobby. Eventually, when simply taking photos as a hobby proved unsatisfying, the duo decided to put up their life savings on photography equipment and moved to Central America for the first of many projects that would define his career.
Over the course of the next forty years, Salgado’s interest in capturing the different facets of humanity—from its best to its absolute worst—took him from South America to Africa to the Middle East, over 100 countries in all. And the prolific Wenders (Pina, The Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire), who co-directed the film with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribiero, spends the majority of the film’s running time showing the audience these powerful photographs while having Salgado speak about his experiences. Although this is a simple conceit—think a feature length motion photo essay—it’s nevertheless effective thanks to Salgado’s deeply thoughtful, informative and even philosophical commentary. His words of wisdom, along with Laurent Petitgand’s chilling score, go a long way to driving home the messages seen in the images.
While the first couple of projects, which includes a startling set of desperate men digging for gold in Brazil, are intriguing and eye-opening, it’s the later sets, which include famines, genocides, natural disasters and wars, that’ll trigger horror. Many of these images, in Rwanda and Ethiopia, are technically incredible yet unbearable to look at. And Salgado, who witnessed all of it first-hand, states how experiencing these man-made disasters, made him lose his faith in humanity. While the imagery in this film will have you agreeing with him, his work, especially during his later years, proves that as long as there are people like him around to document these atrocities, there is hope.
Director: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribiero Salgado
Screenwriter: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribiero Salgado, David Rosier, Camille Delafon
Cast: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribiero Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado
Producer: David Rosier
Running time: 110 minutes
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity