What is the world's condition and what is our place in it? Film critic Emilija Talijan turns towards Wim Wender's biographical documentary on Sebastião Salgado, Salt of the Earth, looking at the tension between photography and documentary, beauty and reality and the individual and the universal.
Wim Wenders’ The Salt of the Earth (2014) turns an admiring lens towards the work of Sebastião Salgado, widely considered the 21st-century’s most important photographer. Salgado is known for documenting some of the most horrifying events of human suffering, yet capturing them with a complicated beauty that has often been criticised. This is partly due to Salgado’s decision to continuously photograph his subjects in black and white, which for a social photographer sacrifices an expected duty towards realism for artistic and aesthetic results. However, this aspect is entirely ignored in The Salt of the Earth, which remains uncritical towards this tension. However, Wenders’ camera is not alone looking to Salgado as a subject. The biopic has been co-directed by Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado who, through this film, seeks a way of understanding his father’s long absences and the sense of purpose that continually drew him away. Salt of the Earth, stitched together by the familial intimacy of a son and the outsider admiration of Wenders, creates a beautiful homage to Salgado’s work and the world captured by him.
Much of the film’s intrigue comes from the uniquely cinematic treatment of Salgado’s photography. Struggling to capture the photographer speaking naturally about his work, Wenders abandons a traditional interview format in favour of a one-way mirror onto which he projects Salgado’s photographs, and through which he films the photographer’s responses. Director on one side, photographer in darkroom-like isolation on the other, Wenders manipulates this one-way mirror: at times we are confronted only by Salgado’s photographs, opaque and stark in their black and white beauty, while at other times, Wenders allows the photographs to give way to Salgado himself, superimposing his face onto his work. Through this technique, Wenders reconnects Salgado’s subjective experience to the images themselves, creating a visual space in which they coexist. With this interview format, Salgado’s photographs stand in place of Wenders’ questions – they are the prompt to which the photographer answers. This formal technique elevates the status of photographs in Wenders’ documentary, for it demonstrates in practice photography’s power to pose questions and allows us to better understand Salgado’s own interrogation of the world via photography.
One of the documentary’s particular achievements is how it succeeds in creating its own world, one that is situated between photography and cinema. The opening still images of the Serra Pelada, a huge almost medieval goldmine involving 100,000 miners in Brazil during the eighties, are immediately given another dimension through voiceover and Wenders’ use of sound effects act to animate the environments that Salgado photographed. Later, Salgado describes his occupation as that of a preneur de son, a ‘sound recorder’, since his subjects recount their life stories to him, as if he was in the process of recording them in their entirety. A classic distinction between photography and film is that cinema unfolds in time, accommodating movement, whereas photography only captures the instant. Yet Salgado describes his photographs in terms of universality and circularity: Serra Pelada is a hole in which you can see the whole of time and human history reflected (the pyramids, tower of Babel, etc). Salgado’s later work, Genesis in the Galapagos, is a drive to understand the world before the dawn of time and civilization and ‘to know what Darwin knew’. For Salgado the part, comprised by each individual photograph, is able to encompass the whole. The documentary heightens this aspect through creating memorable instances of transition from Salgado’s medium to the realm of cinema. After the remarkable stillness of the opening titles, a seven-minute prologue, in which the only motion is the transition from photograph to photograph, movement finally arrives. In a shot of Salgado looking out over a landscape, an almost imperceptible breeze quietly disturbs the bushes to either side of him, reminding us that we have moved into the rich and replete frame of Wenders’ moving image.
As much as the film constructs this rich world, into which we enter, it equally deconstructs it as it shows us around. The viewer is constantly situated: ‘here is our little documentary team’, we are told in the voiceover, as we catch sight of a cameraman crossing the screen. ‘Here we are now’ Wenders utters, as he introduces us to the village in Brazil, in which Salgado grew up. We become part of their world, as they make this biographical documentary. Salt of the Earth does not wish to erase the presence of its filmmakers. Quite the opposite, it intends and succeeds in maintaining this connection - reconciling others and us with them.
Salt of the Earth’s final chapter illuminates how Salgado is able to reconnect to the earth and humanity, following the loss of hope and despair he experienced after documenting the atrocities of the nineties. After engaging in the world in such a global context and feeling sickened by its seeming evil, Salgado felt he could no longer photograph and retreated to his local village to replant his father’s rainforest. This circuitous detour back to the local restores Salgado’s faith in a better future and brings him back to what he sees as the universal. Destruction and regeneration, a desire to capture the whole spectrum and to attest to the human condition, emerge as the governing dynamics of his work. Salgado’s last project is linked to the environment, the collection that would later become Genesis (Taschen, 2007). Throughout The Salt of the Earth, connections are made; between the photographer and his work, the director and his subject, between a father and a son. Through these connections, there is a sense of looming universality as we come to understand the interrelation between images and the moment they capture, history and personal experience, the local and the global and between the world and our place in it.