Film Review: We Owe It to Humanity to Learn About Sebastião Salgado Through 'Salt of the Earth'

Documentary photographers, fashion photographers, businessmen, housewives, househusbands, you, the world – everyone should know the name and works of Sebastião Salgado. His work has moved millions of social workers, doctors, politicians, economists, and photographers alike. His work moves humans because it is human. This might mark the second or third film review on Fstoppers, but it’s rare and extremely fortunate that we should have the ability to engulf the pleasures of what can easily be called the most soul-entrancing art documentary in the world that is “Salt of the Earth.”

Covering the entire story of Sebastiao Salgado’s life and photographic works, “Salt of the Earth” impresses with little more than Salgado’s own images and some documentary footage shot and directed by his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and narrator Wim Wenders.

Sebastião Salgado's work and images from some of Brazil's most lucrative and grueling gold mines were some of the first to put a spotlight on conflict minerals and from where the West sourced its products.

It’s not like “The Cove’s” action/drama hit of the year because of fast-paced and brutal imagery – even though a small amount of that does crop up. Instead, the high-contrast black-and-white images that are so identifiably Salgado’s present themselves in perfect units of time, each lasting just long enough to stir up the inevitable emotions that flood the body. One by one, each image is eventually whisked away soon enough to still make you yearn for more…but even this yearning fades rapidly upon the display of the following image. It’s almost a better-than-gallery experience, despite the relatively (and pitifully) small theater in which the film might be playing. But nevertheless, the images and subsequent stories as narrated by Wenders and Salgado himself are incredibly captivating. Photographer or not, you can be certain that “Salt of the Earth” is a sure test of dullness: if you don’t come out of the film wanting to shoot the world in black and white, your brain simply never properly developed.

Salgado’s work is surprisingly digestible for its impact. Viewers don’t have to think much at all. And yet, if one cares to, it’s easy to notice the ever-present and never-ending depth to each of his images. Salgado seems to have two kinds of images: those in which his subjects are singular and stare deeply into the viewer through the image, and those in which the subject carries the eye from a few feet in front of the lens to the eternity that lies behind the landscape. No matter the image, in each is an equally discernable environment that contextualizes every subject where color need not impede the work at hand.

The exact and specific specialty of the culmination of Salgado’s life’s work is not in the individual photograph, but lives instead in the truly magnificent structure of several compilations throughout which he has divided his works – each their own book spanning years of coverage of specific social, human, and worldly issues.

Sebastião Salgado famously covered the oil fields in Kuwait after hundreds of wells had been set ablaze by Saddam Hussein at the beginning of 1991. The first well fire took months to extinguish while the last well was not capped until November of 1991.

Of course, other publications exits alongside these massive collections, but it’s almost uncanny how Salgado began life studying (with his camera) indigenous peoples largely unaffected by Western culture and technology; transitioned into covering the African continent along with other third-world nations affected by failed political and economic policy that forced millions of people into migration, starvation, and death (“AFRICA” and “MIGRATIONS”); and finally came full-circle, ending with a look into how it all began in a series that covers the still-46-percent of the earth that is completely natural and untouched by man (“GENESIS”).

From time to time, Salgado’s books also highlight the plight of specific people or situations around the world, including those in Africa’s Sahel region (“SAHEL: The End of the Road”), migrant children under the age of 15 ("THE CHILDREN"), the world’s poorest workers that are the foundation of the modern world’s economic structure (“WORKERS: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age”), and even his native country’s poorest leaving Northern Brazil in the face of severe drought (“TERRA: Struggle of the Landless”).

“Salt of the Earth” takes you on an emotional journey unlike any other. You feel curious, then awestricken, then sad, and angry, and lost…and angry and truly, awfully sad again... You’re woken from your sleep of ignorance that serves as your conscience’s only refuge against the guilt that would ensue over any of us if we actually thought about Salgado’s world every day. Thank God we have soccer practice and the airtime of Sunday’s Game of Thrones to distract us from the human mess that wastes outside our borders.

It may be a relief to know that while Salgado’s story certainly takes you there, his life doesn’t end on the same note of bitterness. But if you let it, “Salt of the Earth” will borrow your soul and hammer it over and over, first left, then right, until it’s bent into a mesmerizing bowl akin to that of the steel drum with dozens of facets spanning new knowledge of and reverence for the human experience – a knowledge commensurate with the magnitude of the earth that Salgado explored with his cameras for 45 years.

The trick is to not let the clamor of the contemporary world’s trivial complaints and cell phone notifications flatten your soul back out once you leave the theater. But it would take a conscious effort to rid your memory and body of the film’s impact; and why someone would want such a thing is unimaginable. And yet, it’s bound to happen.

“Salt of the Earth” is now playing across the country (check your local art theaters if it’s not at an AMC near you). 

Sebastião Salgado's "GENESIS" covers the still-46-percent of the earth that has not been touched by man and that looks -- on a large scale -- much as it has for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years.

Adam Ottke's picture

Adam works mostly across California on all things photography and art. He can be found at the best local coffee shops, at home scanning film in for hours, or out and about shooting his next assignment. Want to talk about gear? Want to work on a project together? Have an idea for Fstoppers? Get in touch! And, check out film rentals!

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For the committed photographer this is a movie worth seeing.
It show Salgado chasing down his photographs and eventually hitting the wall, so to speak.
And then it shows Salgado's climb back to photography.
Go see it.

1. I've put this on my short list. Thank you!

2. For better or worse, I'm waiting to read comments here on his liberal dodging and burning.

3. Curious to see whether a good portion of the film shows him actually SHOOTING (like Nachtwey in War Photographer) or the opposite, like almost all of Steve McCurry's behind-the-scenes films that hardly ever show him actually working an image... they are rarely more than dialogue interspersed with stills.

I'm going to do my best to answer your questions without ruining anything. But for your #1, no problem! Glad to hear it's on your shortlist (it won't disappoint...just let it soak in). #2, I'm interested, too. But I think he's okay with it because he really created his own style (at the time, anyway) and owns it, now...who knows, though? And #3, I think there's a perfect mix of everything in this much as you need, and no more of just about everything. It is, however, a film much about what Salgado's work is ABOUT as much as it is a film about the man himself.

Intriguing reply. I'm still along for the ride. Thanks again

I was on the screening of this masterpiece in Zagreb, as a part of a festival. Entrance was free. After the end of the documentary, everybody just sat there in silence for a long moment. After a few seconds loud applause filled the cinema. As we exited, i noticed that most of the people had their eyes red from crying.
Seeing Salgados work projected on the movie screen, larger than life, was something else.
P.S. Typo spotted; First image is from Serra Pelada mine which is located in Brazil, not Africa

Saw his work at the Peter Fetterman Gallery (Bergamot Station) in Santa Monica, CA and was amazed. I did not know prints could look like! His work will be there until 6/2016 and there's no entrance fee!

Hey! Thank you for letting me know! I'm nearby right now and will definitely check it out this week! Bergamot Station is awesome -- truly.