Salt of the Earth

One of the benefits of living in Bloomington is that the University has built a superb, state of the art, movie theater. Jon Vickers is the founding director of the IU Cinema and he deserves high praise for his work here. Saturday we went with friends to see The Salt of the Earth.

The Salt of the Earth is a documentary by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado about the Brazilian photographer (photojournalist) Sebastião Salgado. Wikipedia calls him a “social documentary photographer.” The movie makes this point as well. This means he takes photographs of people, and usually those people are indigenous and often in the greatest of human despair. War, famine, disease, if it’s dire, Salgado has spent years shooting it. His stamina and focus are ridiculous.

There is a TED talk (ugh) that gives him this bio-tag: “Sebastião Salgado captures the dignity of the dispossessed through large-scale, long-term projects.” He sure does show the dispossessed, but I’m not sure about the dignity of any of these “subjects.” The TED talk starts out pretty much the way the film does, with the absolutely mesmerizingly ancient looking photos of a Brazilian gold mine. There is no machinery used, only human hands and feet and bags of dirt.

Gold mine in Serra Pelada
Gold mine in Serra Pelada, Photo by Sebastião Salgado

I don’t really want to try to tell you much about Salgado or his work or the film. I just wanted to point out one particular image that was most moving. I also should say that the film was reticent about the work or artistry of Salgado and seemed instead to mostly focus on Salgado’s narrating the experience of being in this or that place and his own feelings about the experience. But really there’s very little of even that. Salgado takes YEARS to complete his projects and he lives the lives of his subjects, or at least in some measure performs the daily feats of living alongside them, but very little of what that must have been like is talked about. Of course, he is a photographer and the pictures insist that something is terribly wrong everywhere. I imagine the personality and life of Sebastião Salgado has little import when weighed with the documented evidence against humankind.

Sebastião Salgado, Sony Pictures Classics
Sebastião Salgado, Sony Pictures Classics

Once out of the theater and away from that feeling of being convicted of these crimes, there is a chance to consider the film instead of considering Salgado’s pictures. The directors make subtle points about the way this art, Salgado’s fame, even the experience of sitting in this wonderful theater, are as well beholden to the economic mechanisms that underlie the theft and depletion of resources and the exploitation of labor (what Salgado photographs) and create, literally, hell on earth, for most of the world’s people. Salgado studied economics and was fast becoming a world class economist for the World Bank when he decided to quit and take pictures of the same world of which his economic equations were making abstractions.

This very same human use of resources for human gain is how Salgado was put through school (as well as his seven sisters)–his father cut down and sold the timber on his land, he farmed cattle too, and eventually what was once lush and verdant became a kind of desert lost to drought.

The whole movie is full of despair captured one incredible photo at at time. There is a brief reprieve from this as the filmmakers and Salgado go to an island to shoot sea lions and are thwarted by a polar bear. They wait him out and he waits them out–they sleep and he sleeps. It’s pretty amusing. It’s also the one time that Salgado talks about how he makes pictures and what he needs in the shot to create a kind of dynamism.

Also in the end there is “hope.” At least in terms of re-foresting what was deforested. There is a link to the opening, showing Salgado photographing a tribe in the “paradise” of Papua New Guinea, with the closing assertion of reclaiming a lost paradise (his boyhood home recovered). I don’t think there’s hope for modern, industrially damaged humanity, though.

Still what affected me even more than shot after shot of the dead, the diseased, the blind, the dying, the children in coffins, the victims of genocide, the starving and dehydrated (nearly all of these victims of power–governments that withhold food, tribal leaders who dispossess whole villages of their lands), was one shot of one young boy.

"Sahel: The End of the Road"
Photo by Sebastião Salgado

It’s hard to convey how the image of this lost boy felt like he could be any boy–even our sons. This is not possible of so many of the other pictures which seem to be truly out of a hell that can’t be real, though it is. This boy feels real. This boy IS dignified. And I want to hope. His guitar, his dog…but he is alone and I can’t bring myself to believe in his finding any comfort or home.

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