Read two critical perspectives on The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, 2014), by Stephen Goldblatt and Ken Light. Salt of the Earth opens Friday, April 3 at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, the Regency Cinemas in San Rafael, the CineArts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto, Camera 7 in San José and the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill.
THE SALT OF THE EARTH: Spiritual Ferocity
by Stephen Goldblatt
Wim Wenders’ and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s masterful documentary is as much about the life and struggle of the world’s greatest photographer, Sebastião Salgado, as it is about his subjects. Wenders, as is his custom, lived and traveled with Salgado and his small documentary crew while exploring the artist’s early life, his exile from Brazil, and his return to the landscape of his childhood. Interviews with Salgado’s father, his wife Leila, and son Juliano, as well as many photographs and 8mm film clips lay the stage for the photographer’s journey. The photographer is a remarkable presence on screen whose eyes glow with a powerful vision. Wenders often superimposes or reflects Salgado’s face over images in the film to great effect. This prophetic and enthralling film is in great part beautifully photographed by Juliano, and should be seen, and then seen once more.
Early in the film, Salgado remarks that the Brazilian gold miners he so famously photographed were more enslaved by their insatiable desire to be rich than anything else. That observation could be applied to so many of us working today in an arena of media and celebrity obsession, but never to Salgado himself.
Salgado’s subject, improbably enough, is Humanity itself, and his life a quest not to answer eternal questions but to “show” them. For decades, in an Homeric journey, he has circumnavigated the world forsaking family, comfort and safety. His prolonged absences clearly caused pain, loss and difficulty, but his work and legacy have been enabled, researched and presented by his wife Leila with a courage that matches her husband’s.
Salgado often falls in love with his subjects and returns to live with them again. There is a spiritual ferocity in his obsession to be with the impoverished, the dispossessed and the remote peoples of the world. As if by living with those who have nothing, the secrets of everything may be revealed.
Salgado’s observations are hard-won and deeply personal, and in Rwanda the suffering he witnessed on all his expeditions reached a level of such despair that he withdrew from photography altogether. Many years later, he returned to photograph the earth only as it was before mankind inhabited it. As Salgado photographs the natural world, his encounters with a gorilla and seemingly a blessing and recognition by a whale are perhaps improbable, but not difficult to believe. They are difficult to see, though, through your own tears.
Salgado’s choice not to photograph in color but to maintain a monochrome palette often makes astonishingly beautiful photographs that are never pretty. Deprived of color, the images seem to have a luminescence more powerful than any saturation or chroma. There are critics who object to Salgado’s creations as exploitations, aesthetic embellishments of people’s misery, but they ignore Salgado’s deep commitment to his subjects. He is not posing “savages” as noble objects in some Victorian pastiche, but repeatedly placing himself in the blackest of circumstances and witnessing for us all. The Human Rights Center at the University of California has one of his photographs on its walls. Behind all his images is a powerful call for social justice. Salgado is an outstanding artist whose life and work demonstrates that photography can have a resonance beyond all words.
Stephen Goldblatt was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1945. He moved with his family to London when he was seven years old. By the time he was twenty, Goldblatt was working as a professional photographer for the Times Newspaper Group, and in between photographic assignments, he gained his MA at the Royal College of Art in London.
Goldblatt’s early film work is represented almost exclusively by Granada’s documentary television series, Disappearing World. From 1975 onwards, he focused his career on cinematography eventually working on notable films like The Hunger, Lethal Weapon I & II, The Prince of Tides, Batman Forever, The Pelican Brief, and many others. It is, however, Goldblatt’s work with director Mike Nichols on Angels in America, Closer, Charlie Wilson’s War , and Jules & Julia that clearly demonstrates his closest artistic collaboration to date. He has more recently collaborated with Tate Taylor on The Help and Get On Up, and has reunited with Francis Coppola for the restoration of The Cotton Club. He has been nominated for two Academy Awards and three Emmys. In 2007 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Cinematographer’s Festival, CamerImage, in Lodz Poland.
SALT OF THE EARTH: Vision and Struggle
by Ken Light
There is no question that Sebastião Salgado is one of the great photographers of his generation. His work has looked deeply into the inhumanity of mankind in a way that few photographers have. His photographs are breathtaking. He talks powerfully about his work, saying, “When you take a shot, it’s not yours alone.”
His visual storytelling with a 35mm camera and black and white film is cinematic in its breadth. He has portrayed the human condition in a series of long-term projects and book publications including Other Americas, Sahel, Workers, Exodus/Migrations and his most recent project Genesis. Over his long career he has become what some would describe as a photo rock star. He even looks like one, with his shaved head and passionate one-liners. He is a sincere and driven man.
The documentary Salt of the Earth is a collaboration between the brilliant and talented German film director Wim Wenders and Mr. Salgado’s son, Juliano. The collaboration offered the possibility of a documentary that might allow us to understand the photographer and his work beyond the shows, books and articles we have seen. It might allow a close up and deep investigation of what makes Salgado tick, and why people are so moved, with Wenders bringing the vision and Juliano the personal insight.
Wenders first discovered Salgado when he wandered into an art gallery and bought a print from Salgado’s Sierra Palada mine series. Wenders, so drawn to the work, asked himself, “who the man was, this photographer-adventurer.” Juliano wanted to discover his father, this man who was always in motion, photographing the world of others, but almost completely absent to him as a father and as well to his brother Rodrigo, who was born with Down Syndrome.
I had hopes as well that this film might look deeper into this great photographer’s vision, so that we as viewers could understand it in a more intimate way. I also wanted to see the personal side of Salgado. I should tell you that I have been a friend and colleague of Sebastião’s for over 30 years, and have spent time with him and his family. I interviewed him in my book Witness In Our Time: Working Lives of Working Documentary Photographers. I have been on numerous panels with him and have worked closely with him. I came to this film with my own questions, knowledge and bias.
The film gives us an overview of his life history. A ’60s Brazilian university leftist, involved in politics, fights a brutal dictatorship along with his partner Leila. When the dictatorship rises to power, he leaves for France. In 1969, he begins to pursue a career in economics, until 1973, when he borrows his wife’s camera on vacation and makes his first photographs. His connection with the camera is almost instant. He realizes that images can tell a story more powerfully than the words of an economist. He understands that his background as an economist informs and gives heft and weight to his choice of images, and to the stories he tells. His intention is to visually show the backstory that an economist knows best, how the global economy really affects those on the bottom. He recognizes that a visual record of those facts and figures would be far more influential than another report.
This moment alters not only his life, but also the life of his wife and children. Salgado becomes a global citizen and traveler, never home for much time, always on the road photographing. I have always wondered how he managed to square the sacrifice he made of his family for his higher mission. This is especially true when Juliano speaks about wanting to reconnect to his father in the film.
The film does credit to Salgado’s photographs, and his images dazzle on the big screen. The tiny gold miners of a 16 x 20 print in the Sierra Pelada mine, deep within the Amazon, now appear as tragic players in a giant tableau of exploitation and human tragedy. It was exciting to see images that I was unfamiliar with from this series, and others throughout the film. But of course we see the iconic images that Salgado has been making his whole career.
There are moments of laughter as we watch Sebastião and the filmmakers roll across the arctic tundra in pursuit of images of a polar bear. As I watched other viewers react to the film, I could also see their sadness, as we witness the horrors of the Sahel and the brutal genocide of Rwanda. His still images are as real and powerful as ever. A few viewers left the screening because the images are hard to take, the brutality as powerful now as when they were first made decades ago.
The last half of the film focuses on what Juliano describes as the suffering that has changed his father. And in a rare moment of self-revelation Salgado says, “My body was tired.” After decades of documenting nightmarish scenes like the piles of skulls left in Rwanda, he “no longer believed in anything.”
This moment of spiritual exhaustion is a bridge into Sebastião’s last work Genesis , a seven-year-long project that pays tribute to parts of the planet untouched by the hand of Man, with whom he no longer wanted to interact. Initially many of his colleagues, including myself, were confused as to why this brilliant photographer so deeply involved in shedding light on the human condition, would now turn to landscape and animal photography. I’m not sure the answer the film gives truly speaks from Sebastião’s inner self. The film only briefly touches on his emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and I wish it had further explored how he set about healing himself. Nonetheless, the images from his latest project are stunning in their own way, and his fans will not be disappointed.
The story of Sebastião’s family land in Brazil, and how it was destroyed from years of his own father’s hard labor, farming and raising cattle, offers a look into a moment that is more personal. Lelia, his wife, gets the idea to bring back the family land to its natural habitat, and they create Instituto Terra to reforest the land with trees.
To see the origins of Instituto Terra, and Sebastião’s hard work to raise funds to plant and reforest his ancestral land is remarkable. But again, the film makes it look so easy. I want to hear the inner struggles of this journey.
Cinematically, the mixing of Sebastião’s black and white images, and original documentary footage in both black and white and color sometimes works, but at other times feels disorienting. As the film progresses, one sees that this film has two visions, that of Wenders and that of Salgado’s son Juliano. They have different aesthetics and ideas about who this photographer is. It doesn’t always gel, and makes the film seem choppy and at times drifting.
The stylistic decision to have Salgado’s head floating on his images as he talks about them is off-putting at first. It has a strange horror element to it, but one gets used to it, quickly. Hearing him articulate the work and the situation behind it gives an added sense of its meaning.
Throughout the film, I felt sadness about Juliano and the relationship he might have had with his father. I was longing to have the relationship resolved, but that never happens in the movie. Maybe the filmmaker and the father repaired years of distance off-camera. How sweet would this have been for the viewer to see. It would have been more of a personal journey between two men, not just a film that honored the father.
A documentary filmmaker colleague said the movie was informative but “wasn’t a great film,” one about the deep feelings of an artist who has witnessed some of man’s inhumanity to man. I had also hoped a movie with the majestic title The Salt of the Earth might tug at my heart, while sharing a moment of enlightenment about this remarkable photographer. But in the end I was disappointed. Those unfamiliar with his work and his journey will find flashes of revelation and power in his photographs, moments where Sebastião Salgado sheds light on the human condition and brings us closer to humanity, a world he deeply wants us to see better.
Ken Light has worked as a freelance documentary photographer for forty-five years, focusing on social issues facing America. His work has been published in eight books, including Coal Hollow, Delta Time, To The Promised Land, With These Hands, Texas Death Row and most recently Valley of Shadows & Dreams. He is also the author of the text Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Working Documentary Photographers, now in its second edition. His new book, What’s Going On? Photographs from 1969-1974 will be published in November 2015. His work has been in numerous photo essays in magazines and a variety of media (electronic & motion pictures), and presented in exhibitions worldwide including one person shows at the International Center for Photography (NYC), Visual Studies Workshop (Rochester, NY), S.E. Museum of Photography, and the San Jose Museum of Art. He is the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and director for its Center for Photography, and 2012 Laventhol Visiting Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was co-founder of Fotovision, and the International Fund for Documentary photography. Early in his career, he directed documentary films, and was the recipient of an American Film Institute Filmmakers grant. His web site is www.kenlight.com.
In interviews, Stephen Goldblatt discusses his background with the American Society of Cinematographers’ ASC Close-Up, his body of work with FlickeringMyth.com, and his cinematography on Angels in America with Variety.
You can learn more about and see more of Sebastião Salgado’s work at Salgado Gallery and Instituto Terra. Salgado’s TED Talk “The Silent Drama of Photography” can be viewed here. Images from Salgado’s most recent lon-term series Genesis can be viewed at icp.org.
|Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist—A conversation with Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Ken Light and Photo Critic and Curator Fred Ritchin; introduced by Orville Schell. Presented by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, November 6, 2008:|
“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.”