Wim Wenders Softens Sebastião Salgado’s Harrowing Photos in ‘The Salt of the Earth’

In Movies & TV by April Snellingsleave a COMMENT

Even if you don’t know Sebastião Salgado’s name, you’ve almost certainly seen his work. Now 71 years old, the Brazilian-born photographer has spent the last 40 years documenting human suffering: famine in the Sahel, genocide in Rwanda, mass expulsions and civil war in Eastern Europe. His masterful and often devastating photographs have helped define those events for a significant portion of the world’s population. His portrait of a blind Malian woman is perhaps one of the most recognizable photographs of the late 20th century.

It’s that image that first caught the eye of filmmaker Wim Wenders, co-director of The Salt of the Earth, a harrowing documentary that chronicles Salgado’s life and career. Wenders tells us, via voiceover, that he bought a print of that photograph years ago and that it’s hung above his desk ever since. That small detail actually proves to be a revelatory statement that sets the tone for the film. Salt isn’t so much an examination of Salgado’s artistic journey as an awestruck celebration of it.

Though a chronological account of Salgado’s life is eventually teased out, Salt begins in the middle, with the photographer considering what is perhaps his most famous series: a photo essay on Brazil’s Serra Pelada goldmine, a hellish pit where 50,000 men spend their days carrying bags of soil up 1,300-foot ladders. The film quickly acknowledges the irony of making a movie about photographs, but Wenders finds an ingenious alternative to voiceovers and talking-head interviews: Much of Salt was shot in what Wenders calls “the dark room,” where he projected Salgado’s photographs onto a semitransparent mirror and filmed his subject viewing them from the other side. The result is a ghostly superimposition that lets us view the photos (which are jaw-dropping, especially on a big screen) while simultaneously watching Salgado’s face as he relates firsthand accounts of the often-nightmarish scenes he documented.

Early sequences are devoted to the artist’s pilgrimages to photograph remote communities and indigenous populations. Those affectionate portraits give way to something far darker as the film recounts Salgado’s increasing compulsion to bear witness to disaster and despair. Be warned that Salt is a grueling, sometimes punishing experience; lengthy sequences are essentially slide shows of human suffering, sometimes wrought by nature but more often inflicted by other humans. The film lingers on photos of emaciated children, mass graves, and corpses piled into bulldozer shovels—a seemingly endless parade of cruelty and callousness that eventually led Salgado to believe that the human race didn’t deserve to exist. Thankfully, there’s some light at the end, when the photographer and his family return to Brazil and become accidental pioneers in the fields of rainforest conservation and sustainable reforestation.

As a film about the power of photography, and as a love letter to Salgado and his work, Salt is an unqualified success. Salgado is rightfully one of the best-known photographers of our time, and Salt is a testament to both his artistic vision and his technical prowess. As a documentary about Salgado, though, there are some issues that are difficult to resolve. It’s too reverential to be truly insightful. Some have wondered if Salgado’s work objectifies or even fetishizes suffering; whether or not you agree—I can see both sides of the debate—that’s a criticism that deserves to at least be acknowledged, and doing so doesn’t diminish the impact or the importance of Salgado’s work. If anything, considering those thorny aspects of “concerned photography” would help to impart a deeper understanding of the art itself, if not the drive to create it. Wenders has addressed those issues eloquently in interviews and press materials, and his insights would have been helpful here.

To an extent, that uncritical eye is hardwired into the film. Salt is co-directed by Salgado’s eldest son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; Wenders was brought in after many hours of footage had already been shot, to add an outsider’s point of view to what began as a very personal project. Juliano seems content to view his father with a son’s adulation rather than a documentarian’s curiosity, and that’s understandable. We get the idea that he doesn’t really know his father very well, and by the end of the film, neither does the viewer. But as a filmed essay about the power of a masterfully rendered image, The Salt of the Earth has few equals.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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