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The Salt of the Earth is a documentary on the life and work of Brazilian-born photographer Sebãstio Salgado. Salgado, originally an economist, made the professional transition to photographer in his early 30s. The film is dominated by his photographic series—gold mines and the indigenous people of the Awá tribe in Brazil, the natural wonders of the world, the victims of various famine ridden conflict zones in Africa such as the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda.
On the one hand I was genuinely overwhelmed by the beauty of the photography and inspired by Salgado’s art and his environmental activism. For example, he and his wife started the Instituto Terra, a project revitalising barren land in Brazil which has become a model for environmental revitalization throughout the world, as well as a National Park. However, in the lead up to seeing the film I honestly couldn’t be fucked seeing yet another movie of the white-male-genius variety. Seeing it in full substantiated this feeling; the film takes an overwhelmingly celebratory approach to its protagonist, its idolatry probably due in part to the fact that it was co-directed by Salgado’s son.
For instance, The Salt of the Earth is heavy on images of indigenous people, as well as the dead and dying, and crucial questions remain unanswered—did Salgado establish genuine communication with these people? Was he not using them to his own ends, or did his photography help them in some genuine way? Did they/could they even have understood that some white Wellingtonian would see them on a movie screen across the world where something as normal to them as nudity has a completely different connotation? The way that Salgado makes suffering aesthetic is also problematic, reminiscent of a statement once related to South African photographer Santu Mofokeng: “There is nothing as beautiful as black skin and blood! It makes beautiful contrast.” In this way suffering is captured and commodified.
Similarly, I would have liked to hear way more about Lélia’s involvement and contribution to Salgado’s photography, given that they collaborated on much of his work and that she supported the family throughout his career transition from economist to artist, as well as taking care of their children during his long and frequent periods of absence. Still, the imagery is stunning, alternately beautiful, curious and utterly tragic, and worth seeing on a big screen. Maybe just take it with a grain of salt.