There are few photographers more worthy of feature-length documentary treatment than Brazilian social photographer Sebastião Salgado, just as there are few filmmakers quite so gifted in the documentary craft as German director Wim Wenders. Add to this exceptional pairing the personal documentary work of the photographer's son, Juliano Salgado, and you've got more than enough ingredients to make TheSalt of the Earth an incomparable cinema experience.
The film opens on one of Salgado's most well known series of images, a nightmarish overview of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, the surroundings almost completely blocked out by scores of dishevelled workers packed shoulder to shoulder. These images, part of the photographer's wider Workers series, were well publicised and likely familiar to the viewer – but to hear Salgado recall his personal experiences and feelings on location, his eyes scanning the images and teasing out personal narratives, puts the photos on an entirely more personal level.
Captured in the documentarian's hallmark gritty monochrome, scale and detail observed with exacting technical eloquence, the workers of the mine look like broken-down slaves; the artist likens them to the dehumanised masses used to build the pyramids and other grand tributes to human achievement. But, as Salgado notes, the only thing these people were slaves to was the idea of getting rich. Whenever a vein of gold was struck the workers in that area of the mine could take one excavated sack with them – it might contain enough gold that they never had to work again, or it could be nothing but rock.
Insights of this kind are brought to every chapter of the man's storied career – from unlikely beginnings as an economist to his visual explorations of South America, bearing witness to the devastating damage of famine in Africa to documenting the plight of workers the world over, and following the mass migration of displaced people around the globe. Being privy to the great photographer's emotional workings on these journeys enriches the visuals greatly, almost intolerably in some of the most grim cases. Where there was never any doubt of Salgado's visual mastery, it is his deep empathy and compassionate spirit that truly make the film soar.
For his part, Wenders has come up with an ingenious visual device to help the photographer narrate his images without resorting to the momentum-killing talking head format. The photos are projected onto some sort of semi-transparent mirror surface, allowing the director to film both the photos and his subject peering at the images – Salgado will occasionally lean forward, head intruding through the image on screen, eyes scanning the picture, before he leans back to share another recollection, the image once again unobstructed to the viewer. It invests the footage with an immediacy and interactive energy that you seldom get with this type of documentary.
We go with Salgado pictorially as he journeys through the world and witnesses some of the most devastating and soul-destroying events of the late 20th and early 21st century – war, poverty, deprivation, disease, violence, massacres, hate. The images themselves are incredibly hard going, and the stories that accompanying them are simply heartbreaking. It's impossible not to empathise with the photographer as he walks away from the fallout of the Rawandan genocide proclaiming he no longer believes in humankind's capacity to be redeemed.
But the tale is not without an uplifting final flourish – not that anything can really be considered a happy ending after all that explicit misery – as an ageing Salgado finds something of a spiritual revitalisation in a huge project to reforest the devastated Mata Atlântica, which runs through his childhood home. Not only does the large-scale project succeed in replenishing the area and inspiring similar such ecological endeavours the world over, but it motivates Salgado to pick up the camera again, and begin his latest great project, Genesis, in which his masterful lens is now trained on the splendour and diversity of the natural world.
The documentary is by no measure a probing expose; it is an enamoured love-letter crafted by the photographer's two biggest fans. But this in no way diminishes the film's beauty and impact, in fact it is easily one of the best-made documentaries ever committed to a photographic artist. Not to be missed by fans of the photographer, of good filmmaking in general, or anyone with an interest in the rousing highs and crushing lows of the human condition.