A documentary about a photographer faces a novel challenge, one that emerges from the filmmaker's understandable desire to convey the artistic merit of their subject's work. A director who gushingly foregrounds the aesthetic beauty or political import of an artist’s images may unwittingly neglect the potential of their own medium, and thereby reduce the film to a glorified slideshow. On the other hand, swamping otherwise outstanding photos in a surfeit of flashy cinema does a disservice to the individual who created those images, and can result in a film that feels more impressed with itself than with the photographer. Many documentarians strike a balance between these unwelcome extremes by shifting their focus elsewhere. In Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, for example, Ben Shapiro shrewdly directs his attention to the elaborate process by which the titular photographer crafts his mesmerizing tableaus. In Finding Vivian Meier, meanwhile, co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel zero in on the irresistible mystery of their subject's secret life as a street photographer, as well as her confounding personality.
For The Salt of the Earth, director Wim Wenders' love letter to Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, the method is a more classically biographical one, at least on the surface level. The film uses Salgado's life as its narrative backbone, linking together pivotal events and artistic phases to create the story of an still-unfolding creative journey. To that end, the photographer’s arresting black-and-white images function as a kind of visual log of his professional and personal evolution. This approach is highlighted by scenes in which Wenders and Salgado pore over photos while the latter reminisces about particular projects, in the same manner that other people might page through family albums of faded Kodak prints and Polaroids. Not incidentally, Wenders' co-director on The Salt of the Earth is the photographer's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. In part, the younger Salgado regards the documentary as a means to witness his father's world up close, and thereby familiarize himself with the man who was often absent for long stretches of his childhood. [For the sake of clarity, this post will hereafter refer to the Salgados by their first names.]
Wenders and Juliano’s strategy proves remarkably effective and elegant. On the one hand, the photos are undeniably the visual centerpiece of the film. If The Salt of the Earth does nothing else, it serves as an absorbing introduction to the sheer power of Sebastião's work, which captures subjects as diverse as industrial laborers, refugee camps, obscure cultures, war-torn landscapes, and pristine natural beauty. Through both talking-head monologues and voiceover narration, the photographer provides enlightening context and memorable details about individual shots. Some of the first photos presented in the film are the artists' renowned images of Brazil's open-pit Serra Pelada gold mine, where tens of thousands of miners dug by hand in the hopes of striking the mother lode. The imagery of the countless muddy terraces and swarming bodies is instantly riveting, but it would be much the same on the pages of a coffee table book. What makes The Salt of the Earth's presentation distinctive is Sebastião's vivid verbal description of his original reaction to the mine, which he compares to the great construction enterprises of antiquity, such as the Pyramids at Giza.
Meanwhile, the photos also function as observation windows into Sebastião's story, which the directors plainly find just as fascinating as the images he captured. Indeed, the arc of the artist’s life is a straightforward but captivating one. Abandoning a promising career as an economist in 1973, Sebastião turned to photography, first on assignment for news organizations and then as a documentary artist. He developed ambitious long-term projects with his wife Lélia, bringing his camera to unseen and forgotten corners of world and then publishing the resulting photos in impressively hefty volumes such as Workers and Migrations. However, the years spent documenting starvation, disease, and death in misery epicenters such as the Balkans and central Africa took their toll on Sebastião’s psychological vigor, driving him to disillusionment. (The Rwandan genocide and the multiple refugee crises that followed in its wake seem to have been particular breaking points for the photographer.)
Fortunately, Sebastião appears to have found a spiritual balm in his own backyard, quite literally. After years in self-imposed exile, the photographer and his wife returned to Brazil in the 1990s to take over the desiccated remains of the Salgado family cattle ranch. Faced with uncontrolled erosion and a dusty landscape that in no way resembled the lush domain of Sebastião’s childhood, Lélia hit upon a simple but radical notion: Why not just replant the subtropical forest that once grew on the Salgados’ doorstep? The resulting program of environmental restoration, Instituto Terra, not only succeeded in returning the region into a more natural and sustainable state, but also appears to have re-invigorated Sebastião’s artistic purpose. His subsequent project, Genesis, documented the planet’s most Edenic natural locales, and functioned as a sort of visual riposte to the industrial and post-colonial ugliness of the photographer’s earlier work.
Apart from his personal fondness for the photographer’s images, Wenders clearly regards Sebastião’s life as an admirable one. The Salt of the Earth practically glows with esteem for the artist’s physical and political fearlessness, and nods with understanding as Sebastião describes the anguish of bearing witness to so much human suffering. Lingering on the photographer’s late-career immersion in environmental activism isn’t just a matter of factual accuracy: The new direction rescues the viewer from the hopelessness of all the preceding images of dead-eyed exiles and fly-dotted corpses, much as it saved Sebastião himself. It ultimately proves to be a humane stratagem, and one that Wenders and Juliano apply in a manner that evinces integrity. Rather than glibly tossing aside the darkness that Sebastião has documented, the directors integrate it with the light, depicting both woe and wonder as parts of the same continuum. Sebastião's own words underline this stance, for while he speaks contemptuously of humanity’s boundless capacity for evil, he also acknowledges that our species is an integral part of the natural world.
There is an earnest passion at work in The Salt of the Earth, not only for Sebastião’s talents as an artist, but also for the guarded optimism that the photographer has discovered in his later years. The film’s narrative trajectory is crucial in this respect: Sebastião’s tale resembles a descent into an Inferno where every imaginable form of suffering can be cataloged, followed by a much-needed ascent into purifying sunlight. Given the horrors that the photographer has seen, his hopefulness cannot be construed as naïve. Rather, it is a hardened sort of optimism, tested and tempered by fire. This is comfortable territory for Wenders, who often explores the human condition through the lives of extraordinary individuals, particularly artists (Lightning Over Water, Tokyo-Ga, Notebook on Cities and Clothes, Buena Vista Social Club, The Soul of a Man, Pina). In The Salt of the Earth, the filmmaker has the good fortune to work with a subject who is astute, eloquent, and possessed of a singular set of world-spanning experiences.