Wednesday, May 6, 2015


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

For most of the last 40 years, acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado has been traveling the globe and focusing his practiced photographer's eye primarily on the experiences of people at the margins -- the poor, the dispossessed, refugees, the starving, the homeless. The images he has captured, all in black and white, are startling; luminous and beautiful, though often stark and disturbing, they convey a profound sympathy and a deep appreciation for the humanity of his subjects.

This artist understands and is fully at home with what the 12th century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno termed "the tragic sense of life." His work evinces a mindfulness that, as Unamuno explained, life is characterized much more by exception and disorder than by total or perfect order, and that life is inherently tragic. The documentary "The Salt of the Earth" meditates on the images themselves, and allows their creator to speak from the experiences that brought them into being. The result is a kind of spiritual journey into the deep.

The film is co-directed by Wim Wenders and by Salgado's son, Juliano, and theirs is an inspired collaboration. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado had begun to travel with his father and had accumulated a wealth of footage of the elder Salgado at work among the Yali tribe in Papua New Guinea; among another isolated tribe, the Zo'é, in the Brazilian Amazon; and in an island in the Arctic Circle. The two Salgados recognized that the creation of a documentary would benefit from a third perspective, and enlisted Wenders, who had long admired the elder Salgado's work. Wenders' prior films -- notably "Wings of Desire," a black-and-white film about an angel who wishes to become human when he falls in love with a mortal, and "Pina," a documentary tribute to the late German choreographer, Pina Bausch -- display a facility with mystery and deep longing that makes Wenders a good collaborator with Salgado.

From Juliano, who films in color, we acquire a sense of his father at work and of the influence of his important relationships. The photographer does not merely drop into a place and snap pictures with a practiced eye. Rather, he spends months at a time living with his subjects. He comes to know their way of life, their circumstances, and builds trust that can only be assembled through deep observation and shared space. Yet for Juliano in childhood, his father was a frequently absent, mythic adventurer; there were costs to the life his father chose. One sees, too, that the work depends on support from Salgado's wife Lelia, who is an important presence in the film. These observations ground a sense of momentum, of calling, that drove Salgado to more than 100 countries in the furthest reaches of the globe.

Wenders, working in black-and-white, hints throughout at Lelia's importance in grounding Salgado's work. He also films Salgado discussing his art, often through a marvelous sort of dark room technique; Salgado appears in front of a screen, looking at the photographs and answering questions about them, with the camera behind the screen filming through the photographs, via a semi-transparent mirror. The effect is profound, conveying a sense of Salgado reliving his experiences of capturing the images. Often he is quite moved as he describes the humanity of his subjects; we see that he is an artist but also a seeker, whose photographic images arise from a true ministry of presence with his subjects.

Salgado's work has famously been criticized by Susan Sontag and others for conveying the pain of others with a beauty that dulls the conscience, and the film has been criticized for not examining Salgado's work from that more critical lens. I didn't miss such a perspective -- and, indeed, I think such criticism misses an answer that is contained in the film itself. Salgado's photographs are the product of weeks and sometimes months spent with their subjects, often in countries beset by war or famine or tragedy. The artist creates a relationship with the people he photographs that enable him to capture their humanity in a way that would not otherwise be possible. They respond to the emotion and empathy which so clearly guide him, and he speaks reverently of them and of a sense that they "give" him the photo. Salgado has indeed become famous for photographing suffering, yet he has equipped himself to offer a voice to those who suffer and to convey what is deeply true and beautiful in their humanity. The fact that many may not have the capacity to absorb the impact of the images is indeed troubling, but cannot be the fault of their beauty.

The film also captures something important about Salgado's own trajectory. Years of photographing human misery have taken their toll, and particularly after spending time in Rwanda during the genocide, Salgado experienced a profound depression and stopped working for a time. Around that period, Lelia's inspiration and vision prompted the couple to embark on the gargantuan task of replanting the forest on Salgado's family's former ranch. What began as a family project became a massive ecological undertaking of successfully planting 2.5 million trees, bringing life where there was devastation. The resulting Instituto Terra has become the leading employer in the region, and out of that project, Salgado's artistic work has moved in the direction of photographing landscapes, wildlife, and human communities that continue to live in accordance with ancestral traditions and cultures.

I was struck by the lessons contained in the journey of this artist and his family. Compelled by an adventurer's spirit; by an intense interest in what moves humans to seek, to work, and to destroy; by an artistic gift; and by an intention to observe deeply and empathetically, Salgado has created a body of work that challenges us to wrestle with the most profound questions of human existence. It makes sense to me that the trajectory of his work through death and devastation has moved him to engage in other acts of creation and to explore elemental expressions of life. And it makes sense that all of it contains beauty.

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