“A photographer is literally somebody drawing with light, a man writing and rewriting the world with lights and shadows.” That’s how Wim Wenders begins his documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, The Salt of the Earth (2015), which he filmed together with Salgado’s son, Juliano. It is an impressive and beautiful visual homage to Salgado’s life’s work, and passion. The Brazilian photographer has been traveling the world for more than 40 years, chronicling the human condition. His richly complex black-and-white photographs are of such depth, both compositionally and emphatically, that they mark you. Rather than drawing with light, he’s more likely sculpting with light.
Sebastião Salgado’s camera has been along the years witness to some of our species’ hardest, lowest and most horrific moments, like the Sierra Pelada mines (“The Workers”), the burning fields of Kuwait in the wake of Desert Storm, the Ethiopian famine (“Sahel”) and the civil war in Rwanda and its savagery genocide (“Exodus”), the latter having left him psychologically scarred. You just have to look at Salgado’s photography and feel the unimaginable despair, terror and misery of those people. It is not easy and I had the impulse to look away. It is as soul-shattering and haunting as it is visually stunning. A photograph does speak a thousands words.
But Wenders quickly and beautifully finds a narrative balance against the devastation, as did the now-74-year-old photographer, who seeked refuge in nature – a phase of his work titled “Genesis”, that encompasses parts of the globe retaining their primeval aspect, from Wrangel Island in Siberia to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, despite our planet’s seemingly unstoppable march towards destruction. But more than that, he started working with his wife, Léila, to regrow the drought-stricken remains of his family’s once-thriving farm and the Brazilian rain forest of his youth. They did an experimental program of replanting millions of trees and their technique proved so successful that the project, called “Instituto Terra,” has now reforested parts of Brazil’s Mata Atlantica and is a model for similar efforts worldwide. Salgado’s “Sahel” and “Exodus” photographs did not make me cry, but this did. It may sound strange, but it’s the truth.
As much as I love photography and as much as I admire Sebastiáo Salgado the photographer, his artistry and life-long dedication to his craft, it was this latter project, “Instituto Terra”, that sealed my admiration for Sebastiáo Salgado the man. It gives you hope and faith. Hope about our planet, faith in the human race, hope about our future and our children’s future, faith in ourselves. Miracles can happen. You just have to work for them.
photo: Sebastião Salgado