Sebastiao Selgado,
Social Photographer 

Film review by Deborah Engel-Di Mauro


Film: "Salt of the Earth," Directed by
Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
"Salt of the Earth" showcases the work of Sebastiao Salgado, a social photographer and former economist from Brazil. Narrated by Wenders, the film traces Salgado's development as a photographer and reflects on his projects in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and all over South America. Though he traveled widely, Salgado explored each location long-term and in-depth, creating evocative and vivid photo essays of the world's most harrowing places and dispossessed people.
His images are stunning. The photographs are gorgeous compositions of light and dark, but many are as horrifying as they are beautifully photographed. Yet the photos are respectful, not exploitative, and they seem to capture moments that exemplify some truth of what it is like to live in the place and time he is photographing.
His photos of people suffering war and famine are almost too much to bear.  In fact, Salgado's experience in Rwanda nearly crushed his spirit and left him not wanting to continue as a photojournalist.  But over time, with the help of his wife, Lelia, he found a new direction, focusing on landscapes, wildlife, and on human communities that he felt represented the majesty, beauty, and "purity" of the earth.  As always, the photographs from this period are breathtaking, but the way Salgado and Wenders seem to categorize the people of the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia and the Zo'e community in the Brazilian Amazon with other parts of non-human nature made me uncomfortable. I can't say Salgado was disrespectful or even directly condescending to his human subjects, but I got the sense that he viewed them as somehow untouched by time and outside forces, not recognizing how these societies must have developed through the years.
This dynamic came into relief when a member of the Zo'e community asked Salgado to give him his knife as a souvenir. Salgado was inclined to do so, but felt that it would would threaten the purity of Zo'e community traditions to leave such an object behind. This interaction left me uncomfortable and questioning what would be the "right" way to handle such a situation. Wasn't Salgado being a little precious with his Zo'e acquaintance and with the community in general? Was it really his place to judge what would and would not have a negative impact on this society that was not his own? I'm not entirely sure what the answer is, but the moment made me bristle and wish for more exploration from the filmmakers.
The movie ends on the land on which Salgado grew up. During his childhood it was lushoriginally a subtropical rain forestbut over the years, as a cattle ranch and as mining territory, it became dessicated and degraded. In the late 1990's, Salgado and Lelia began replanting the rain forest and eventually created the Instituo Terra, which serves as a model for ecosystem restoration. Although the Instituto does not begin to remediate or address the horrors Salgado has documented throughout his career, it does provide a positive space to foster some form of healing and growth.