The Salt of the Earth

The Salt of the Earth, doc­u­men­tary, rated PG-13, Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - HAPPENING IN MAY - — Priyanka Ku­mar

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.

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