Review: The Salt of the Earth


The Salt of the Earth is a documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado made by Wim Wenders (whose other documentaries include Buena Vista Social Club and Pina) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer's son. Wenders is a friend and admirer of Sebastiao, and the younger Salgado grew up worshipping his acclaimed father, who was often gone for long periods of time as he traveled the world doing his work.

Accordingly, the film doesn't push or probe the photographer. The men opt to showcase Salgado's projects while mostly letting him speak for himself. We look at Salgado's stunning images; black and white with every shade in-between. Wenders projects the photographs on a semi-transparent mirror, so we see the images as Salgado talks about them. It's a good technique. Not only does it avoid the tedium of talking heads, it keeps the presentation of the photos from feeling like a slide show.

Salgado has spent much of his career recording the lives of people suffering from great deprivation. The beauty of his photographs of human beings in pain has drawn criticism from social critics like the late Susan Sontag, who opined that his artistry diminishes or feeds on the plight of others. Salgado has been called a voyeur of global pain. Does his work objectify suffering? Is it grief porn? Does the photographer overtly anesthetize human misery? I believe beauty and great pain can coexist without one trivializing the other. I believe it is not callous to recognize beauty in painful imagery.

On the morning of 9/11 I was finishing a review of some movie when a friend called and told me to turn on the TV. The first plane had hit the World Trade Center minutes earlier. I watched in horror as the image was shown again and again, soon to be followed by the crash of the second plane and the collapse of the first building, then the other. While I experienced the same sick feeling as everyone else, I was also mesmerized in a different way. Never in any movie had I seen planes fly into (and partially through!) a skyscraper. Never had I seen a skyscraper collapse. All the way to the ground from a crash so many stories up. It looked like one of the coolest special effects ever.

I felt terribly guilty thinking that back then, and I'm not crazy about sharing it with you right now. But the fact is that some of the images from that nightmarish morning were spectacular. Recognizing that did not minimize my empathy for the people injured or killed in the atrocities, or their families, or humanity in general. It was just an example of how we can experience something visually on multiple levels.

A native Brazilian, Salgado began his career as a photographer in 1973, shooting photos of people experiencing suffering in Niger. The documentary is not chronological. It goes from work to work, starting with photos from the Serra Pelada mine from his Workers series of the 1980s. Another series, The Sahel, the End of the Road, marked the photographer's first study of a community suffering extreme deprivation, and his first time working in conjunction with Doctors Without Borders.

NOTE: You can support the noble work of Doctors Without Borders. Visit their website and see what they're doing.

After Workers came Exodus and the absolute nightmare in Rwanda. "We humans are terrible animals," said the emotionally battered Salgado. He returned to Brazil and the ravaged family farm that was once green and healthy. The photographer and his wife Leila started an experimental replanting program that proved so successful that, after being used to reforest other parts of Brazil, became a model used around the world. His next work, Genesis, is a collaboration with son Juliano covering efforts in various parts of the planet to retain/recover the primeval state of land. If we don't do it, I suspect Mother Nature eventually will, after we've been dispensed with.

The phrase "the salt of the earth" is from the Sermon on the Mount. The World English Bible translation of Matthew 5:13 is, "You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men."


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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