In April 2013 I took the opportunity to see Sebastiao Salgado’s project ‘Genesis’, at the Natural History Museum, London. Already familiar with some of his earlier work such as the famous images of famine in Ethiopia, and his series on ‘The Other Americans’, the Genesis project was intriguing as Salgado was not previously noted for his natural history photography. I have to say that I was impressed.>
My appreciation of this work was reignited when I learned about ‘Salt of the Earth’, a documentary film portrait of Salgado, co-directed by his son Juliano Ribeiro and Wim Wenders, and after a brief search I discovered that it was to be shown at a local(ish) art house cinema. Having now seen this film I would like to share some of my thoughts and observations.
Given its pedigree, my expectations were high and I have to report that it does not disappoint. The film opens by reminding us that photography is about light, about ‘writing’ or ‘drawing’ with light, and it asserts that the purpose of the photographer is to tell stories by drawing with light. We are then thrown into some of Salgado’s most iconic images of the gold mines in his native Brazil, overlaid with a commentary from the artist himself detailing the scene and his thought and experiences in capturing it. This leads into a journey through his career from his early days as a student of economics in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent period in Brazil, through his move to Europe and his subsequent transformation into a photographer. From this point we see his development through a number of sustained and extensive projects documenting increasingly demanding and traumatic experiences culminating in his recording of the plight of refugees and victims of famine and war. It is here that Salgado reveals that he lost his belief in human nature, the very belief that seemingly drove him to be a photographer in the first place. Having witnessed at close hand the unfolding disaster that was the genocide in Rwanda and the despair of the displaced populations, he declares “We humans are terrible animals”.
The film then explores the ‘Genesis’ project, the idea behind it and the extent of his ambition and tenacity to complete it. He reasons that he wished to address concerns over the state of the planet, to look at issues of ecology and the environment. However rather than concentrating on landscapes laid waste by industry, pollution and global warming, he discovered that there are still large areas of the planet which remain largely untouched by modern life, as they have been “since the dawn of time”. His project therefore celebrates these remote wildernesses, presenting in effect what is at stake. Perhaps this is in part inspired by a cathartic need to escape the traumas of some of his previous works.
Thinking about Salgado’s pictures as the narrative within the film unfolded, I was struck by a paradox. Salgado is undoubtedly a highly gifted and accomplished photographer who has developed an approach, a style of image making which is consistent and recognisable. His images are invariably monochrome, often dramatically lit, carefully and deliberately composed and printed with considerable skill to reveal exquisite tone, texture and form. They are without any doubt ‘beautiful’ images, yet what they depict is all too often difficult, abhorrent and disturbing. On more than one occasion I felt a kind of uncomfortable guilt as although appalled by the content I was simultaneously preoccupied with the visual quality, the aesthetic of these finely crafted photographs. Others before me have likened Salgado’s use of light, composition and gesture to that of the renaissance painters, but perhaps this is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as with a great Caravaggio canvas the narrative is plain to see, but it is how the subject is rendered, the form which holds your gaze long enough to absorb the content.
In recent lectures on the genre I have found myself citing Salgado as an example of a ‘traditional’ social documentary photographer, ‘old school’ if you like. I do not intend this to be a criticism, simply an observation. It seems to me that his work has more in common with artists such as Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand or W. Eugene Smith. His images have pathos, they provoke empathy with the subject, reflecting the photographer’s own humanist position and motivation. Even when faced with the horrors of war and starvation, even when Salgado ‘loses’ his faith, the images are always compassionate. I perceive this to be built on a very different tradition from that of an arguably more disaffected, more nihilistic view evident work by the likes of Weegee, Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, or perhaps more recently Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden. Such images seem far from sympathetic; they seem to scrutinise dispassionately, at times almost contemptuously. Salgado invites us not to judge the subject, but to question ourselves and to connect to a common humanity.
For Salgado, Genesis represents a departure, a change in direction. He tells us that many of his friends warned him against tackling this project as he was known for his social documentary photography, he would be moving out of his specialism. He of course ignored them, simply stating that he would just have to learn how to deal with landscape and wildlife photography. In point of fact, I argue that he didn’t, ‘need to’ that is. His approach is pretty much the same and that distinctive style is still there. Landscapes share that same sense of the epic as the vistas across the Ethiopian refugee camps or the burning oil fields in Kuwait. There are dramatic encounters with the wildlife with that all important sense of moment, be it a charging elephant or an elusive jaguar drinking at the edge of the river. And lets not forget the people are still there, albeit remote native peoples with little or no contact with the outside world*. All this is presented in the same distinctive visual form that we have come to recognise and expect, the dramatic lighting, the use of monochrome (remarkable and ‘brave’ in itself in the field of natural history photography), the same seductive photographic form.
Within the film there is little or no reference to Salgado’s technique, and that is quite right and proper. How he shoots, how he prints is not discussed, and although we do see him taking pictures, his commentary concentrates on the subject and his experiences, not his method. I did find one moment quite revealing however. In the first few minutes of the film, Salgado is seen on location attempting to photograph a group of Walruses but his plans are scuppered by a marauding polar bear chasing the Walruses into the sea. The bear then takes a prolonged and slightly unnerving interest in the photographer and film crew who appear to have retired to some sort of hide. Salgado does not seem to be concerned by this, simply irritated by the bears persistence and proximity. He then questions the value in simply framing the bear up close, wanting instead a more relevant background. This again suggests a recognition of the significance of the photograph as a visual event. It is not enough for him to simply record the subject, he needs to construct a narrative, to tell a story with his camera, through context, composition and dare I say it, the ‘decisive moment’. Once the bear has finally departed, Salgado resumes and gets his shot, a clash of tusks in a melee of walruses, back-lit against the Arctic seas. The significance attached to the moment is evident throughout his work and it is reinforced later in the film when Salgado describes his portraits of refugees and looking for that instant when the subject reveals themself to the camera.
‘The Salt of the Earth’ reflects the immense respect and affection that both his son Juliano Ribeiro and Wim Wenders have for Salgado. The cinematography drifts seamlessly from colour into a stylish monochrome which echoes the photographer’s own visual signature, yet there is enough here to demonstrate the skills both of Wenders and of Juliano Ribeiro as story tellers in their own right. There are references throughout to the times in Juliano Ribeiro’s childhood when Salgado was absent, away working, but there does not seem to be any indication of resentment. (Perhaps through this film Juliano Ribeiro is examining his own understanding of Salgado the photographer along with his relationship with his farther.) Through Salgado’s own commentary and that of his friends and colleagues, including Wenders, the film gradually defines Salgado’s perspective, his motivation and the scale of his achievements. At this point I think it would be remiss not to also recognise the contribution of Salgado’s wife Lélia who is revealed as not only his partner, but his agent, to a degree his picture editor, and as a significant and dynamic driving force in her own right.
So, without giving away any more ‘spoilers’, it is sufficient to say that the film transcends the darkest points in Salgado’s career to ultimately conclude on a positive note with a real message of hope. Thus despite the exposure to some of the most shocking and haunting images in particular the work in Africa, I left the cinema feeling uplifted. In short, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. I believe it offers a significant and authentic insight into the world and the work of a exceptional photographer and perhaps more importantly, a remarkable human being.