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‘Salt of the Earth’ is compelling

Social documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado has for the past 40 years taken pictures in places where few, if any others, have gone.

Salgado’s black-and-white prints have chronicled global displacement, famine, poverty and environmental catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, in years-long projects that resulted in epic collections.

Exploited gold miners in Brazil, victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, desperate Eritrean refugees and squalid refugee camps the size of large cities are among the subjects captured through his lens.

In “Salt of the Earth” – the name applies to working people – directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Sebastiao Salgado’s son), look back on the former student radical and trained economist’s life and work. They use interviews with the 71-year-old Salgado to accompany compelling portraits portraying incalculable suffering in a world that often seems to have gone mad.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Salgado’s images of oil-drenched workers trying to stop dozens of towering oil-well fires in Kuwait unleashed by Saddam Hussein in 1991 as his forces retreated. Salgado came upon an abandoned, palatial estate near an inferno, where he says the horses he depicts were driven to madness and the birds, their feathers coated in oil, can no longer fly.

Salgado’s powerful images – which many people first became familiar with in Rolling Stone magazine – are discussed chronologically in order of project. But one wishes Wenders’ and Juliano Salgado’s uncritical portrait explored issues left unexplored.

As Salgado records the calamities around him, one wonders where the urgency is to expose the suffering he encounters in real time by trying to harness world attention. His work isn’t typically seen until years after the devastation he documents – including the lives at risk – has occurred.

Little is said about how Salgado gains the confidence of the mostly poor and often dark-skinned people, many of them half-naked, or about the charges leveled by the late prominent cultural critic Susan Sontag that his pictures seemed to aestheticize – and therefore take away from – the human suffering he presents. Also unexamined is the toll Salgado’s long-term projects exacted, one assumes, on his family life.

Still, Salgado’s stunning work stands, in many cases, as the photography of record for so many whose plight has been ignored or forgotten by those in power with the resources to help. And the sweep of his work, as “Salt of the Earth” reminds, is staggering.

So is the realization of what’s behind so many of the photographs: war, unrestrained development, the demise of agrarian-based economies, destructive policies of multinational corporations, overpopulation, inadequate housing, overcrowding, air and water pollution, destruction of forests and wildlife, and the widening gap between rich and poor that exacerbates poverty and displacement.

Even Salgado began to reach his limit more than 10 years ago with the suffering he had witnessed, concluding, “We humans are a terrible animal; we are extremely violent. Our history is a history of war; it’s an endless story. We should see these images to see how terrible our species is.” As if to throw himself a lifeline, Salgado embarked on “Genesis,” turning his camera to unspoiled nature as a source of rejuvenation from 2004 to 2011.

By then, Salgado and his longtime wife, Lelia, who edits and produces her husband’s work, had embarked on a remarkable project, replanting nearly 2 million trees to restore a subtropical rainforest on the Brazilian farm where Salgado grew up.

Seeing the return of nature provides the film with an unexpected sense of possibility amid so much suffering and despair.


Salt of the Earth

3 stars

Directors: Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

Running time: 110 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity.

The Lowdown: Documentary examines career of acclaimed social documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado. (In English and French with subtitles.)

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