I have always admired the filmmaker Wim Wenders, so when I saw he had a new film screening at the Cineplex, I rushed out to see it before it disappeared. The Salt of the Earth is a film about the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, and Wenders made it with Salgado’s son Juliano. It is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. Its message is simple: despite the current destruction to our beautiful planet, there is still hope.
The film opens with Salgado’s extraordinary photographs of a gold mine in Brazil, showing thousands of men busily working like a colony of ants in the hopes of striking it rich.
Wenders, who provides the voiceover, explains that when he first saw these photos, he decided he had to meet the photographer, which is how Wenders’s project began. Salago, who is in the film, provides his own commentary, stating that men are terribly determined when it comes to acquiring wealth. However, a problem arises because they are not willing to share. The significance of this statement resonates with the film’s ending.
Salgado grew up in Northeastern Brazil, where his father owned a large and prosperous cattle ranch. As a young man, Salgado left to study economics at the University of Sao Paulo. He became a political activist, so immediately following the military coup in 1964, he fled Brazil and went to France. It was during this time that he developed a passion for photography and began taking pictures when on assignment in Africa. Before long, he devoted himself entirely to photography and his wife to organizing exhibitions of his stunning work. Salago spent most of his life travelling all over the world, photographing the devastation of wars, mass migrations and genocides.
Visions of hell: First Gulf War, 1991, Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze.
Rwandan Refugee Camp, 1994. At this point in the film, Salago comments on the complete trust of the child in its loving mother, despite the chaos surrounding them. Part of the beauty of Salago’s photographic vision is his ability to capture the humanity of his subjects. He seems able to do this because of his natural empathy for them, bearing witness to their suffering and honouring their tragic efforts to survive under inhuman conditions.
Starving child looking for food, Mali, 1985. One cannot help but notice how much this mere child resembles a very old man.
Many years later Salgado returned to Brazil, where his father’s farm had been destroyed by drought. Salago was in despair. Having witnessed such unspeakable cruelty and destruction, he lost faith in humanity. His wife Lélia then suggested they begin replanting the rain forest on the property he had inherited. They did so, and the land, which is now a National Park — Instituto Terra — was transformed.
I urge everyone to rush out and see this profound film. You won’t regret it. If you can’t find a screening, Salgado has also made a video presentation for Ted.com, in which he delivers his message of hope.