Watching “The Salt of the Earth,” the compelling new documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, it becomes clear early on just how odd it is to experience Salgado’s work on someone else’s timetable.
With an exhibition or a book of photographs, you set your own clock, spending as much time or as little inside a particular image as you like. With film, that’s not the case. Co-directors Wim Wenders (a huge Salgado fan) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the photographer’s son) linger on certain canvases of catastrophe or human suffering while darting off others, and often I found myself engaging in an internal monologue: Wait! Go back! Other times it was the opposite, when Salgado’s imposing, devastating images of famine and genocide victims became nearly too much to bear.
The film is a moving account of one man’s global exploration, and how ecological awareness and a desire to go home again repaired his soul after seeing and processing so much inhumanity. “The Salt of the Earth” begins with a series of photographs taken at Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine, where some 50,000 workers toiled like slaves, without machinery. The sight, Salgado tells Wenders in the film, threw the photographer out of the present and into the realm of ancient civilizations, all built on the same thing: greed, economic inequality and dirt-cheap labor.
Salgado grew up on a family ranch in Aimores, Brazil. His multiyear photographic projects include “Migrations: Humanity in Transition,” capturing the destinies of refugees and nomads, usually amid carnage and warfare and global business as usual. For the movie, the subject’s grown son followed his father to New Guinea, the Arctic and beyond, as Salgado went about his work, got to know the locals, over and over, for extended, often difficult periods.
The images are often astounding: On the Galapagos Islands, for example, extreme close-ups of a lizard’s legs reveal what Salgado calls medieval armor from another age.
There are times when the panorama of despair and cruelty becomes suffocating, though (and there’s controversy surrounding this matter). Salgado appears incapable of fashioning an unsightly image, even when it might be called for.
Susan Sontag has characterized Salgado as a specialist in “world misery,” reducing his human subjects “to their powerlessness” and their agonies. Wenders encourages no aesthetic debate or viewpoint beyond his own; that’s hard enough to get right, after all. Beyond Salgado’s immaculate sense of composition, Wenders is most interested in how Salgado and his wife, Lelia (all but sidelined in the film), restored his family’s nearly barren ranch land to a thriving, emerald-green ecosystem. This provided Salgado with the sanctuary he’d been seeking his entire life without quite realizing it.
Wenders conducts the interviews mostly off-camera, with Salgado answering questions in French. The work on view, guiding every second of “The Salt of the Earth,” takes us to the ends of the Earth. Is what we see grief porn, or an epic, career-long study in the best and worst we can find on Earth? See the film and decide for yourself.
SALT OF THE EARTH
Directors: Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Rated PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity)