The Salt of the Earth begins with an arresting black-and-white photograph of a mud-soaked man leaning on a post over a giant hole that seems to open into hell itself. Like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, thousands of dirt-caked bodies haul sacks from the gaping pit, scaling rope ladders far into the background, with not a machine in sight.
“I’d returned to the beginning of time,” says Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado in a voice-over of his shot of the gold rush at his home country’s Serra Pelada mine in 1986.
The photo’s epic scope and deeply empathetic look at human suffering are more impressive spread across a big screen than they might have been when director Wim Wenders saw the image in a California art gallery—leading him, many years later, to make this documentary with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
Even for the legendary photographer, seeing his work at this scale, in a film spanning decades of arduous projects tackled everywhere from the freezing climes of Siberia to the sweltering rainforests of the Amazon, is almost overwhelming.
“For me, it was the first time I’ve seen my images that size, and that impressed me a lot,” the genial, modest 71-year-old artist tells the Straight over the phone on a press tour to Toronto before the film opens in Vancouver this Friday (April 10). “And to see 40 years of my life: there was a huge concentration of emotions from those moments in my life. It’s very intense for me.”
Wenders and the younger Salgado pay tribute to the elder’s stunning body of work, from his heart-ripping images of people starving in Ethiopia to his purgatorial ones of firefighters battling the Kuwaiti oil fires, but The Salt of the Earth is much more than a luminous slide show. Relying on the soft-spoken man to tell his own incredible story, it first traces his journey from economist to photographer. “After I finished my PhD in Paris, I had the opportunity to go to Africa to work,” explains Salgado to the Straight. “And my photos had 10 times more meaning to me than what I did in economics there. From there my life was launched.”
Salgado goes on to document some of the most gruelling crises around the globe, before undergoing a transformation late in life and changing his focus to wildlife, unscarred landscapes, and indigenous people untainted by modern civilization. We also see the way he’s worked miracles by replanting two million trees on Brazilian land (including the ranch he grew up on) ruined by overfarming and deforestation.
Salgado’s skill has been immersing himself in the worlds he shoots, whether he’s embedding himself in the jungle with starving tribes fleeing conflict in Africa or spending months travelling above the Arctic Circle with the caravans of Siberia’s nomadic Nenets.
“Living with people—you cannot realize a picture without it,” he says with passion. “You need the time; you cannot just be there as a voyeurist. In the end, photography was my way of life and I was very, very happy to meet the people. I want to see the suffering of this planet, the beauty of this planet. I feel so honoured.”
Asked if he was emotionally scarred by the trauma he witnessed, he says, “It was painful, but you don’t see only the painful parts of these things. You have friends, relationships. I work with MSF [Doctors Without Borders], and these guys did incredible things. I also worked with UNICEF. All these things also bring you compensation.
“To meet the planet, to meet this universe: that is the truth of life,” he adds philosophically. “The truth of life is not to spend it in an apartment.”