Sebastiao Salgado's career has taken him to some of the most terrifying and desperate places on earth. The Brazilian photographer has documented genocides, famines, environmental destruction and industrial disasters. He has also photographed some of the most exotically beautiful places on earth, showcasing nature at its wildest.
The Salt of the Earth is a slick documentary tribute to Salgado's extraordinary life and work. The film is co-directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado's son, Juliano. The pair take turns telling Salgado's life story and exploring what motivated him to embark upon his large-scale photographic projects.
So we learn of Salgado's journey from rural Brazil to Paris, where after briefly flirting with a career in economics, and with his wife Leila's encouragement, he packs it in to start working as a photographer. Soon he's off, camera in tow, often for years at a time. Firstly to Africa, then through Latin America, and then long missions though the Sahel region of Africa with Doctors Without Borders. There's his journey to the burning Kuwaiti oil fields following the first Gulf War, and then hellish trips through the nightmare of Rwanda and central Africa in the 1990s.
The film alternates between straight-up narration from Wenders or Juliano (whose perspective is personal, and who looks at his father's career through the dynamic of the family), and interviews between Wenders and Salgado. Some neat tricks are used, like projecting Salgado's face over his images, so we watch him looking at his photographs whilst he is discussing them. The images are often highly confronting, but they are breathtaking to see projected on such a large scale.
Following his trips through Africa in the 1990s, Salgado was burnt out, understandably unwilling to document anymore horrific human catastrophes. His solution was to re-invent himself as a photographer of the natural environment and as the film goes on we learn that's his primary concern now: photographing the beauty and mystery of the earth's untouched places in the hope that people will appreciate it and seek to conserve it. It is a new chapter in an amazing career. One well worth learning about.