The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth, documentary, rated PG-13, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
The ongoing drought in California and the possibility of megadroughts in the Southwest make the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado painfully relevant for us all. He is the subject of The Salt of the Earth, a documentary co-directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado, the photographer’s son. The elder Salgado began his career as an economist but soon realized that the photographs he took with his wife’s camera on trips to Africa gave him more joy than the economic-development reports he wrote. After consulting his wife, Lélia, Salgado decided to change course and attempt a career as a photographer.
Throughout his artistic career, Salgado felt the pull of Africa. He covered famines and droughts, but when he returned there to cover the Rwandan crisis, he was completely demoralized by the senseless deaths of countless refugees, a situation compounded by the ongoing genocide there. He came to see humans as an “extremely violent” species. “Our history is a history of war,” he says in the documentary.
After Salgado returned home, he inherited his father’s barren farm in Brazil. Instead of selling the land, which had become desertlike, Lélia came up with the startling idea of replanting and reforesting it with more than a million trees. Now, years later, the Instituto Terra is an oasis of green. A new ecosystem, complete with ants, cicadas, birds, and even jaguars, has established itself there. The land has been turned into a national park for all Brazilians to enjoy.
Some environmentalists or climate-change pundits disavow personal action — maybe because that seems like such small change in the face of our mammoth ecological issues. But Salgado’s story illustrates that each of us can make a real difference, and that individual efforts can even become the impetus for collective and political change. Perusing or even writing books about the planet can only take us so far.
The process of healing his own land seems to have helped heal Salgado too — he changed course again, this time turning to wildlife photography. He began his new journeys in the Galápagos, where his quick eye perceived that the iguana is his “cousin.” While photographing a tortoise, he wondered if the centenarian creature saw Darwin in the flesh. He realizes that the “main thing is I’m as much a part of nature as a tree.” The photographer who spent his life bringing stories back from around the world rediscovers himself at home. Reforesting his farm becomes the defining story of his life.
The elegance and scope of Salgado’s wildlife and landscape images are reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams. As a social photographer, he fully understands Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” And it’s delightful to discover that Salgado adds a philosophical mind-set to this rare combination. Not many photographers would compare the clashing of walrus tusks (which is what he sees in a cluster of walruses) to a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
In 1986, Sebastião Salgado captured this dispute between workers and military police at Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine.