Sunday, June 12, 2016


'The Salt of The Earth' must be one the remarkable documentaries ever made. A bold claim.
It's a film about the life of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (now 72) which takes us to the ends of the earth and the end of ourselves. We travel over what feels like the entire world and go back in time as Salgado discovers villages that are still living in the medieval age and beautiful hunter-gatherer Amazonian Indians that are living in paleolithic times. There is some colour in the film but mostly it's in black and white, his chosen medium. His powerful monochrome images give even poverty, death and violence a certain beauty that he has received some criticism for. Wim Wenders and Salgado's eldest son Juliano were both going to make separate films but happily they joined forces to stunning effect,


The film opens with some of Salgado's most famous pictures, of Serra Pelada, one of the largest mines in the world (now abandoned), a vast hole dug by an estimated 100,000 gold miners, who carry the ore on their shoulders, climbing vertiginous ladders. There is no machinery, just the awesome sound of an anthill of men. Salgado comments: "When I reached the edge and heard the babble of 50,000 people in this huge hole, I felt it had returned to the beginning of mankind" These are the first pictures of his that Wenders saw which made him wonder who this photographer was.

Suddenly we're watching a small plane fly through rugged mountainous country and, as it swoops in to land, black and white changes to colour and we are in the West Papua Highlands, the Indonesian part of Papua New Guinea, to meet the Yali people. Its 2011 but the Yali are on BC time. Salgado seems perfectly at home and the tribes people seem unpased by the presence of this strange bald-headed figure with his monstrous camera..
Salgado and his seven sisters grew up on a remote farm in the state of Minos Gerais in the north-east of Brazil. It was near the biggest mining region on the planet and he remembers the endless trains carrying iron ore. When he started his studies in Aimores, then a small town now a city, he met his lifelong partner Lelia. It was love at first sight. They moved to Sao Paulo where they got married and Salgado graduated with his masters degree from the city's University. The brutal military dictatorship in Brazil at that time, drove the couple to London where Salgado worked as an economist for the International Coffee Organisation and travelled regularly to Africa.

The couple then moved to Paris where Salgado started to lose his interest in economics and instead began taking photos around 1970. On a trip to Niger in 1973, he found both his subject and his style. Lelia and his first son were to stay in Paris and she organised and promoted the sale of Salgado's pictures. Salgado himself set off for seven years to photograph a project called 'Other Americas'.

He made a striking figures at that time with a cascade of long blonde hair and a big beard. He was to travel to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, climbing right up into the Andes to meet and photograph remarkable tribes and colonies of people: The Saraguros, for example, who are very religious but also get totally drunk. In the state of Oaxaca in Mexico he met the remarkable music-loving Mixe people who all play instruments, then the Tarahumara who are great runners.

On the completion of this long project and the birth of their second child who had Down's Syndrome, they left Europe to return to Lelia's home town in Brazil.
Salgado used the opportunity to spend over two years making journeys to he remote parts of NE Brazil where life and death are very close. He shows us babies in tiny coffins who, because they'd died before they were baptised, are buried with their eyes open in rented coffins. The suffering he saw there changed him.

Worse was to come. From 1984-86, Salgado travelled through the Sahel, working with Doctors Without Borders, in Ethiopia, Tigre and Mali. The vast refugee camps, the droughts and starvation, make his photos from this period difficult to look at.

From 1986-1991 he travelled in 30 countries for a project simply entitled 'Workers' which showed the harsh world of fishermen, steel workers, ship wreckers, car workers, tea pickers and, of course, the gold diggers.

In 1991 at the end of the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set fire to the Kuwaiti oilfields. He didn't want to leave this vast spectacle: 500 oil wells burning with teams of fire-fighters battlign to subdue titanic forces. His pictures show them as exhausted, oil-soaked hardly humans. Explosions damage Salgado's hearing. 

From 1993-1999 his focus was displaced people, refugees, all over the world.

In 1994, he went to Tanzania and witnessed the huge displacement of people fleeing the slaughter in Rwanda. He drove 150 kms into that country and there were dead bodies the whole way. His photos take us into the megacity of refugees, more than a million.

Then came Yugoslavia (1994-95). He reflects: "We humans are terrible animals - extremely violent."

Then came the heart of darkness: Congo (1994), Rwanda (1995), Congo (1997).
Two million displaced people. He says: "You felt the whole planet was covered by refugee tents."

These experiences took a toll on his soul. He no longer believed in humans: "We didn't deserve to live."

What saved him and healed him was Lelia's idea to replant the forest that had been lost on his family farm. In ten years, their Instituto Terra planted two and a half million trees and the area is now established as a National Park.

In that same period, Salgado embarked on his last great project: 'Genesis'. This time his eye concentrated on nature, a love letter to the planet, and on the unspoilt landscapes and tribes. 

He starts in the Galapagos islands with the other-worldly giant iguanas. One telling image of a iguana's clawed foot reminds him, he says, of the hand of a medieval knight. 

He sits in the jungle with the gorillas, learning that they will allow you there if you show them politeness and respect. He encounters a huge whale, touching its skin and seeing its tail 55m away, flap in response.

He tracks down and lives with the Nenets - the cowboys of Siberia. Eighteen people and 6,000 reindeer. They sleep with their lariats round their necks and wear boots made of silver fox skin that last them a lifetime.

His son captures footage of his journey to meet one of the remotest tribes in the Amazon: the Zolé. Naked with few adornments - the men sport giant plugs in their bottom lips - they stare unconcerned into Salgado's lens, composed and unafraid. The women are in charge and have four of five husbands for different purposes.

The film's message is at least half the world remains untouched. The destruction of nature can be reversed.

Salgado stares out at us like a spaceman. He has seen so much and has spent his life using his remarkable eyes to show us all aspects and extremes of human nature and nature itself. His astonishing endurance, his ability to find kinship with people around the planet, his deep humility and love of nature will touch your heart and spirit and restore your faith about what we can do to save our planet.

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