Sebastião Salgado is one of the greatest humanists to ever train his camera on the world.
Sebastião Salgado is often referred to as simply a “social documentary photographer.” It’s a fine enough shorthand for this Brazilian-born artist and photojournalist’s 40 years traveling the globe capturing some of the most indelible images of poverty, the effect of warfare on the citizens of various nations, and the simple efforts of people around the world trying to earn a living. But as The Salt of the Earth, the new documentary by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s eldest son Juliano, brings to light, the 71-year-old is one of the greatest humanists to ever train his camera on the world.
Even if you are unfamiliar with his name, chances are you have seen one or more of Salgado’s photographs. It was Salgado, a former economist, who took arresting pictures of the oil wells burning in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from the country, and of poverty-stricken families in Ethiopia, and of mothers and children separated from their husbands and fathers as a result of the war raging in Yugoslavia. You’d know the images because they get permanently seared into your consciousness.
Wenders wisely emphasizes the photographs in his film. There’s voiceover from the director and Sebastião to provide context, but otherwise, you are forced to confront these beautiful but often haunting visions in widescreen. It’s a rare documentary that leaves you both despairing and inspired in equal measures.
The film contains plenty of biographical information, most notably a foundational look at the formative experiences that led Salgado to leave a life of potential comfort behind to visit the most far flung parts of the planet and commit them to film. It’s with this background detail that Wenders stumbles slightly. The venerable German director give us only so much to wrestle with, skimming past Sebastião’s son, who was born with Down syndrome, and only cursorily reminding viewers of the family he was leaving behind to spend months abroad. Juliano makes mention of it, but only vaguely. And when Sebastião’s wife appears on camera for the first time, it is to discuss a topic completely unrelated to such matters. Wenders would have done well to either pour in more information or to excise it completely.
With Sebastião’s career, on the other hand, you are immersed. You share in his anguish as he buckles under the psychic weight of all the horrors he has witnessed. And you thrill at his transition into a kind of nature photographer, using his camera to indemnify the people of the world to take better care of their home planet. The subject of his photos may have changed, but the message remains the same: we should be doing more.