The Salt of the Earth pairs biographical detail with the rigor of an essay film, explaining the career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado through a narrative collage of his photos over a 30-year period. Wim Wenders co-directs with Juliano Ribiero Salgado, Sebastião’s son, which indicates the film’s personal valence, as it delves into Sebastião’s academic training as an economist, subsequent marriage, and family life. Furthermore, an autobiographical component is added through Sebastião’s own narration and interviews, explaining his psychological dispositions as he traveled to México, Brazil, and Africa while seeking to define his career through capturing the sociopolitical conditions of numerous geographical regions. The Salt of the Earth commences as a seemingly straightforward examination of a photographer’s life and work, but evolves into an intimate reverie on family and aesthetics, while remaining sporadically attuned to the reflexive and ethical dimensions of ethnographic discovery.
As a photographer, Salgado sought to illuminate cultures beyond Western reach, epitomized by an early exhibition entitled “The Other Americas,” which glimpses faces of inhabitants within Brazil, Peru, México, and several other Latin American countries during the late 1970s. Salgado’s photography replaces moving images throughout, with his own recollections through voiceover supplementing the material. Yet Wenders never quite settles into a singular presentational mode, consistently cutting to Salgado speaking directly into the camera or interjecting his own voice/contemporary footage to alleviate a potentially stagnant structure. Moreover, Wenders tackles various periods of Salgado’s work with an efficient balance of information and affect, as interested in feeling the images as explaining them. In particular, Salgado’s trip to Rwanda during the late ’90s is effectively recapitulated as an interregnum between Salgado’s identity as artist and environmental activist, culminating in his decision to construct the “Instituto Terra,” which sought to restore subtropical rainforests of Brazil to their original state.
Wenders implies that knowing Salgado’s photography necessitates learning of his family life, which is presented in an impressionistic fashion that invokes The Tree of Life for its dizzying highlight-reel approach to decades of familial toil. The birth of a child can be a moment of inexpressible happiness, as with Juliano, or a prolonged moment of grief, as when Salgado’s second child is born with Down syndrome. Yet Wenders refuses to revel in familial warmth or strife, instead proffering these moments as reminders that an artist’s work is necessarily built from personal tribulations, though Wenders implicitly cautions against defining such work exclusively through biographical detail. Although Salgado speaks of his personal life in relation to work, there’s never a one-to-one correlation made on Wenders’s part, as he affords voices to all involved without reductively pinpointing critical turning points. These voices include Salgado’s father, whose insights on familial hardship steadily develops into a three-generation-spanning narrative of personal history intersecting with present-tense political crisis.
The film’s title refers to people, for whom Salgado’s camera is almost exclusively drawn to, sans a late career foray into wildlife settings. His artistry captures human beings in their natural environment; the same could be said of Wenders, whose camera is similarly drawn to elucidating Salgado’s plight not only through words, but face, as he’s often shown in extreme close-up, with vignette lighting setting him apart from a darkened background. These aesthetic interests on Wenders’s part manifest through a reflexive, camera-on-camera tête-à-tête, where the two men are, at one point, literally shooting one another. Salgado even expresses concern near the beginning in making “a film about a photographer,” possibly fearing an unspoken solipsism in having his work focused on so exclusively.
To that end, Wenders’s only misstep is neglecting to interrogate Eurocentric interests with any distance from Salgado’s work, which is sorely demonstrated at one point through Salgado’s insistence that a group of natives play with his high-tech camera. Moreover, when Salgado claims that “no one deserves to live” following his time spent in Rwanda, the film treats the statement as a selfless, sentimental declaration, utilizing composer Laurent Petigrand’s score to further lament the point. The Salt of the Earth finds itself in complex representational terrain throughout, but it seldom relinquishes a learned optimism that even the most destructive of catastrophes, whether related to human rights or eroded ecology, can be reversed.