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'The Salt of the Earth' and Tensions Between Peace and Disruption and Beauty and Destruction

The Salt of the Earth shows that Sebastião Salgado is as much of an activist as he is an artist.

The Salt of the Earth

Director: Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Distributor: Sony
Studio: Decia Films, Amazonas Images, Solares Fondazione delle arti
Release date: 2015-07-14

The Salt of the Earth (2014), co-directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, is a documentary about Brazilian artist Sebastião Salgado’s life, with a particular emphasis on his photography. It doesn’t require prior knowledge of the subject, but it’s more likely to appeal to photography enthusiasts.

Much of the documentary focuses on Salgado’s photography collections, including Otras Americas (1986), Workers: Archeology of the Industrial Age (1993), Migrations (2000), and Genesis (2013). As the co-directors project Salgado’s beautiful black and white photographs on the screen, Salgado provides commentary about them. Every so often, the documentary will offer background information on Salgado’s life.

Salgado’s photographs explore the tensions between peace and disruption and beauty and destruction. They show the consequences of colonialism and corporate expansion. Some of them bear witness to poverty in Latin American countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, others to the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. Salgado’s experiences shape his perspective on human existence, which he calls "a history of wars… a tale of madness."

After Rwanda and Bosnia, Salgado claims that he felt "sick in his soul" and couldn’t take photographs of human suffering anymore. He became interested in the planet, and began work on Genesis, his tribute to the earth’s spiritual beauty.

In the late ‘90s, Salgado and his wife Lélia returned to his family’s cattle ranch in Brazil, which experienced environmental degradation. Together, they founded the Instituto Terra, a nature reserve in Brazil’s Atlantic Forrest. The Instituto Terra supports reforestation, conservation, and environmental education. Genesis cannot be separated from Salgado’s work with the environment. For Salgado, nature’s magical, mysterious beauty must be preserved.

Salgado explains that art critics were confused by his transition from social photographer to wildlife photographer, which doesn’t make sense because his wildlife photographs depict the same disturbing desolation that his social photographs do. Just as human-induced violence causes refugees all over the world to flee their homelands, human-induced climate change causes animals to flee their natural habitats. Salgado has a close connection to the natural world, and his photographs strongly condemn what human beings have done to it in the name of capitalism.

Throughout the documentary, Salgado’s narration provides important context, but it’s at the expense of any pure contemplation of his photographs. Frankly, I found it distracting. The problem is that the narration tells us what to think about the photographs, when the filmmakers should instead allow us to form our own interpretations.

At the same time, the documentary would likely be boring without the narration, and audiences unfamiliar with Salgado’s work would be confused about the historical and cultural context. This demonstrates why it’s so difficult to make documentaries about still photography. Wenders and Juliano needed to do more than simply display the photographs, but their incorporation of Salgado’s narration is not an effective device. They were faced with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t predicament, and I don’t think they solved it successfully. Perhaps it's a predicament that cannot be solved.

The bonus featurette “Looking Back with Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado” conveys the conflicts of interest between the co-directors. In the ten-minute clip, we learn that they created separate rough cuts of the footage, and struggled to agree on a cohesive final cut. Wenders was more interested in Salgado’s work, and Juliano was more passionate about portraying his personal relationship with his father. As it turns out, Wenders’ vision is more prominently featured in the final cut. The final cut offers a few moments from Juliano’s perspective, but for the most part, the father-son relationship scenes seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.

In addition to this behind-the-scenes featurette, the dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack comes with a commentary by the co-directors and a few deleted scenes. The deleted scenes are intriguing, and should appeal to die-hard Salgado fans who wish that The Salt of the Earth was even longer.

A number of critics have expressed concern that The Salt of the Earth doesn’t address the ethical questions that Susan Sontag poses in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). A.O. Scott of The New York Times, for example, claims that Salgado’s photographs "deserve a harder, more robustly critical look." According to Scott, Salgado’s ethics need to be questioned "precisely because [his photographs] disclose harsh and unwelcome truths." ("The Eyes of a Beholder of Hardship", 11 December 2014)

Does the photographer have a responsibility to "the pain of others"? Does photography about "the pain of others" perpetuate passivity and apathy, or does it promote compassion and sympathy? Scott is concerned that questions like these are not raised in the documentary. I understand his point, which derives from Sontag’s provocative prose.

However, without Salgado’s photographs, future generations wouldn’t be able to bear witness to past persecutions. Surely this counts for something. Salgado’s camera is a powerful teaching tool, and he uses it to show what human beings have done to each other throughout history. Once the atrocities have been seen, they can’t be unseen. Salgado's photographs of pain and suffering try to persuade people to act in ways that ensure such pain and suffering will cease. Salgado is not responsible if his audience chooses not to act.

The Salt of the Earth provides insight into an important photographer’s life and work, and shows that Salgado is as much of an activist as he is an artist. There’s no doubt that the public would be less informed about the world’s injustices without his work. His photographs are a significant service to the world, and The Salt of the Earth deserves credit for bringing them to the world’s attention.


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