A film about renowned social photographer Sebastião Salgado, created by master documentarian Wim Wenders, makes sense from the outset. The two figures share a history of political commentary, each crafting an oeuvre concerned with the drama of humanity, globalism, and nature. The award-winning, and Oscar-nominated Le Sel de la Terre, (The Salt of the Earth, a French and Brazilian production, 2014) was made by Wenders in conjunction with Salgado’s son, Juliano. It’s a predictably beautiful production: soaring, sweeping, silver-plated. Wenders narrates Salgado’s personal and aesthetic biography, combining intimate images from Salgado’s own archive with photographs from major works such as Otras Américas (1986), Workers (1993), Terra (1997), Sahel: The end of the road (2004), Exodus (2005), and Genesis (2013). To tell the story, Wenders has used a mirror technique where Salgado’s images are dimensionalised with the literal voice and eye of their creator, so we see each image at the same time as we see Salgado recalling their provenance. The mirror is a simple vector for accessing the artists’ thoughts and feelings, setting a mood of reflection and recollection.
Juliano Salgado speaks too, taking over from Wenders on occasion, remembering his father’s ‘superhero’ presence in their early family life while in exile in Paris during the Brazilian dictatorship. Wenders and Salgado want us to know that family life and the family home hold the photographer’s practice together: at a number of points in the film we also hear from Sebastião’s own father, a farmer from Minas Gerais in Brazil’s southwest, as well as Lélia, Salgado’s partner. Lélia, we learn, was the primary parent for Juliano (and his younger brother, Rodrigo) whilst Sebastião travelled the world for work; she is also the chief curator and designer of most of Sebastião’s exhibitions and publications.
From the outset, Wenders reminds us that Salgado commenced professional life as an economist, working on development projects with organisations like the World Bank and the International Coffee Organisation. Salgado turned to photography after borrowing Lélia’s Leica, turning his gaze onto subjects such as housing projects in France, the lives of Indigenous peoples and peasant farmers throughout Latin America, and the experience of famine in the Sahel. He learns about liberation theology in Ecuador and Peru, travelling with a radical priest who introduces him to poor communities in the throes of organising against state impunity and Church complicity. Salgado’s exposure to (and of) Indigenous peoples is also important to this period, which the film sacralises through the memory of a Saraguros man in a village in Ecuador, who told Salgado he believed the photographer was “sent from heaven”. To be sure, Salgado’s lifelong interest in Indigenous peoples has the consistent theme of unfettered access, with the blessing of his subjects, and the virtues of ‘non-modern’ time and technique. Later, this dovetails neatly with the photographers’ reverence for what he views as the “pristine” nature of the pre-industrial world.
These optics, which may be viewed as alternately colonial and humanistic, have rightly earned Salgado’s work forceful critiques that call into question the otherwise overwhelming respect and acclaim accorded to the photographer. These critiques remained present with me as I watched Le Sel de la Terre. As Parvati Nair recounts in her book A Different Light (2011), the most well-known critics of Salgado include Susan Sontag, Ingrid Sischy, and Michael Kimmelman, who have been variously concerned with the photographer’s politics and ethics by noting the relative voicelessness of his subjects, the aestheticization of their suffering, the grandeur and universality accorded to disparate human and planetary experience (in works such as Terra, Workers, Exodus, and Genesis), and a certain fetishization of the pre-modern, the non-industrialized, and the spiritual. These critics agree that there is a fundamental injustice in the production of reportage, artworks, and the like whose most visible benefit is to the producer, who enjoys considerable fame and financial benefit from the depiction of subjects who do not speak. Despite best intentions, Salgado as producer controls the narrative about the lives of these ‘others’. The questions posed by Sontag and others are as relevant to the work as the images themselves.
Indeed, we usually don’t know if the people in Salgado’s images gave their permission to be photographed, to be styled in a particular way, or to be placed into a narrative of global suffering that regularly skirts the colonial aesthetics of “the noble savage,” as well as the ‘inevitably’ poor, starving, or dead, contrasted by a ‘perfect,’ pre-human wilderness. We’re simply asked to accept Salgado’s vision, and to praise him for the extent and the intimacy of his ‘access,’ however attained. Whilst Salgado has raised awareness and donated funds through his work, we don’t know whether the lives of the people depicted in the midst of conflict and famine have materially improved. (Wenders, too, has a habit of deploying the colonial visual rhetoric of discovery and benevolence for unclear ends, as Simon Featherstone suggests of The Buena Vista Social Club.)
The critiques above find some confirmation in Le Sel de la Terre. For example, “Africa,” often spoken of as a singular entity, is described as the place of deepest inspiration and necessary return for the photographer’s practice, and also the site of greatest trauma. On photographing the displaced and violated in Central Bosnia, Salgado says: “it’s strange this was happening in Europe, at the end of the 20th century… these people had a European state of living, a European intellectual capacity”. “Africa” escapes such historicised incredulity, suggesting that Salgado sees the comparably structural suffering of people experiencing famine in the Sahel region as somehow more unavoidable. Within this context, the ‘strength’ and ‘humility’ of the suffering bodies that Salgado has witnessed throughout his career is regularly referenced, as is the defining power of Salgado’s own gaze, whilst Wenders, as many others have before him, praises Salgado’s “empathy for the human condition”.
Recounting an especially threatening moment photographing the effects of drought and the state manufacture of famine in Ethiopia – helicopters and machine guns bearing down on people fleeing that country in search of safety and nourishment – Sebastião notes, “I took a photo, and then I ran”. This particular zone of suffering has Salgado pairing with humanitarians Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In Mali, Salgado shows how MSF physicians “saved” children suffering from extreme starvation through a highly successful recovery program. Overall, Salgado’s images from this period are distinctly disturbing, and, as images of starved and dead Black bodies, they cannot be immune from the charge of racialized subjugation or poverty porn. Wenders does not consider this, though; instead noting softly that Salgado’s book Sahel: The end of the road, where many such photographs appeared, raised powerful “awareness” of the effects of the drought on the people and raised troubling questions about its political causes.
As the film continues we hear how Salgado’s witness nearly kills him after he accompanies UN soldiers to photograph refugees relocating from Rwanda to the Congo during the Hutu genocide, after which he contemplates giving up his vocation altogether. Wenders works this melancholic white man’s trope: we sense the burden of bearing, through interpreting, human suffering in artistic and intellectual practice, as well as the turn from materiality to nature for comfort if not redemption – that strange conflation of authorship, transcendence and self-loathing that has men hating humanity whilst striving to save it. The privileged capacity to leave these sites of suffering – such as being able to run from the machine guns – still apparently escapes Salgado’s attention. After Rwanda, Salgado decides that, “I no longer believed in salvation for humans”. If at this point we are still unsure how to understand the specific nature of Salgado’s moral and aesthetic burden, Wenders makes it explicit, “Sebastião had seen into the heart of darkness.”
In the end, Salgado doesn’t leave photography. He turns his lens from the fallen human world to the preservation of a pre-industrial harmony with nature at home on his family’s drought-ravaged farm in Minas Gerais. We see him tending to seedlings and looking out over newly greened hills. The Salgados’ ‘Instituto Terra’ is a regenerated sanctuary for native plants and animals of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, ‘returned’ to this state from its previous existence as the family cattle ranch. We hear of Salgado’s succour in seeing a tree he “helped to plant” flourish. This is doubtlessly the source material for Salgado’s edenic turn in Genesis, for which he decides to shift from the register of denunciation of his previous works (which critique consumerism, labour exploitation, land enclosure, and border protection) to one of optimistic announcement that “two-thirds of the earth is still as it was at the time of creation”. This, he says, can inspire us, as “the destruction of nature can be reversed.” In his encounters with the plants and animals, Salgado sees himself anew as a part of an ecosystem, as “of the earth”, which is timeless and embracing. Salgado appears as a new kind of benevolent settler, making the desert bloom, turning from a belief in human salvation to a hope for redemption through nature.
Lest we completely consign Salgado to the status of the Bono of photojournalism, it should be noted that Le Sel de la Terre does reveal a somewhat more complex eye than the above critiques might suggest if analysed individually. Salgado’s touch is gentle, and often leaves key questions unanswered. Even at its most romanticized, his effect is not one of the moral sledgehammer, and his approach is far from cynical. The film depicts a rather deferential man with a ruminative lens and a slow burning mood. Whilst we don’t know anything of the dynamics outside the frame, when Salgado is filmed with his subjects there appears to be mutual generosity and appreciation, with the affective exchange appearing quite horizontal: in a Zo’é indigenous community in the Amazon, we see children and adults laughing at him, using his camera, and posing for photographs with pride. Further, Salgado’s treatment of the humanitarian response to the tragedies he documents is not entirely uncritical. Of the displaced in the Sahel he reveals that, in moving a camp, MSF’s food distribution plans went awry and many more people died at the very point at which they had been told to expect food and safety. In documenting and exhibiting the human suffering of human-made conditions like war and famine, Salgado’s messaging appears more “come and see the blood on the streets” than the facile “make poverty history”. It might be Wenders’ rendering that is more wanting than Salgado’s practice. The authorial Salgado voice and eye is greatly exaggerated by Wenders’ gentle peritext and Salgado Junior’s longing to know his larger-than-life dad.
Indeed, Salgado’s images are part of the visual lexicon of movements for global justice, complicating their perception. Of Terra, the photographic volume concerning the struggles and successes of Brazil’s landless worker’s movement, Salgado says in an interview alongside the late Eduardo Galeano, that it was produced from a position of being “inside the debate”, of making images and showing them directly alongside those he depicted. In so doing he roundly rejects the notion of his work as “fine art”. This, says Salgado, is the way he is portrayed by the United States: i.e. as a ‘fine art photojournalist’. That portrayal, he argues, is categorically wrong. Salgado is a leftist, a former exile from military dictatorship, a critic that is moved by human suffering, humbled by human resilience, and disturbed by the intricacy of injustice. His photography, he says, is to be understood as a relation more than as an object; as document more than artwork. Certainly, during travels in South America in 2005 and 2007 I saw images from Terra on the walls of houses in the Movimento Sem Terra (the Brazilian landless movement) occupations, on the cover of Zapatista publications in southern Mexico, on display in various NGO offices in Brazil and Mexico and in a community farmhouse in a small town in south-eastern Bolivia. As Parvati Nair also recognises, an image made by Salgado signifies very differently within these networks: “its outreach is not the same as it would be in a book, next to specific text or on the walls of Movimento Sem Terra’s office.” Place and context are both important to situating, evaluating and interpreting Salgado’s body of work; something Wenders might have made more of.
Wenders concludes his introduction to the film with the words, “after all, people are the salt of the earth”. Salgado, however, seems to be telling us that it is people who have salted the earth – scourged it with exploitation, war, and famine – and that there is value in marginalizing humans entirely. By the end of Le Sel de la Terre’s 110 minutes, I’d have settled for a de-centering of the globalised male auteur as the vehicle for registering human experience.