Shane Baker | The Salt of the Earth - a film about Sebastião Salgado.
Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.

The Salt of the Earth - a film about Sebastião Salgado.

October 12, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

There don't seem to be all that many films made about photography and photographers - and those that are made are generally in the "arthouse" category. The film Finding Vivian Maier was a rare example of a film which seemed to have been widely distributed.

I've come across a film which should have broad appeal, but typically, doesn't seem to be widely available. The Salt of the Earth is about the life and work of UN feeding station, sub-Saharan Africa by Sebastião Salgado.UN feeding station, sub-Saharan Africa.Sebastião Salgado's image of a child being weighed at a UN feeding station. the great, great Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado. Made by noted Wim Wenders and Sebastião's son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, it tells of the photographer's life, moving from economist to a documentary photographer with a mission and conscious to practical environmentalist to a documenter of our planet.

I'm not intending to go into Salgado's life and work; the film does that - as do any number of web articles. However, briefly he left economics to travel the world and photograph what he saw. A lot of his early work was in recording the tragedies of 20th century Africa: famine and war. He came back with images which were at once beautiful and horrifying. A starving child being weighed at a UN feeding station, refugee camps, he recorded it all. Furthermore, he didn't roll up in his Landcruiser after spending a comfortable night in the nearest five star hotel, he stayed with these people - which allowed him to understand them - and they him.

His next major project was Workers - an archeology of the industrial age, in which he set out to pay tribute the manual workers. Arthur Miller put it best "This is a collection of deep devotion and impressive skill."

I've got the book and I've seen the exhibition. If you get the chance to see either, have a look.

From an interview with Salgado which I read (which is also mentions in this Ted Talk), all this exposure to the worst we've done to each other started to take its toll. He was told by his doctor that he would die if he continued with his life as it was. So he and his wife returned to Brazil and to the family farm - to discover that it too was dying.

The two of them then undertook an epic project to rehabilitate the land. They succeeded and 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) of Brazil is now returning to health - and with it, the birds and animals that had once lived there. In the process, they formed the Instituto Terra, which is devoted to furthering this work elsewhere.

Replenishing the land seemed to have a similar effect on Salgado and he took up his camera again - this time to record the natural world. The result was his Genesis project:

Genesis is an attempt to portray the beauty and the majesty of regions that are still in a pristine condition, areas where landscapes and wildlife are still unspoiled, places where human communities continue to live according to their ancient culture and traditions. 
Genesis is about seeing and marvelling, about understanding the necessity for the protection of all this; and finally it is about inspiring action for this preservation.

Whale tailWhale tailA whale's tail, captured in black and white by Sebastião Salgado. In this project, Salgado brought all his skills to documenting, not man's inhumanity to man, but the natural world - including people who have chosen to live traditional lives.

The same skills that produced those beautiful/terrible images of war, famine and hard labour are now used to record birds, animals, landscapes and the dignity of traditional people. It's a great work of art, and an important document of the plant at the beginning of the third millennium.

I fear I have digressed!

About The Salt of the Earth is about a man who is both a great artist and someone who cares about the important things. In my opinion, Genesis proves he is our greatest living photographer.

If you care about photography, or the environment, or justice - or if you simply enjoy beautiful photographs, this is a film for you.

It's distributed in Australia on DVD by Madman, and seems to be widely available on disc.

Find a copy. You won't be disappointed.


Shane Baker





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