A story in pictures

A striking portrait of the art of Brazilian photographer

One of Sebastião Salgado’s images of firefighters capping wells in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

One of Sebastião Salgado’s images of firefighters capping wells in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

The Salt of the Earth
Opens Friday, May 15. Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Wim Wenders’ documentary about the celebrated Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has several stories to tell.

First and foremost among them, of course, are the life and work of Salgado himself. But there is also the story of Salgado’s family, his remarkable wife, Lélia, and their son Juliano (with whom Wenders shares directing credit here). And, given the nature of Salgado’s work, there are also telling accounts of social and environmental calamities in remote parts of Africa and South America.

The power of Salgado’s photographs is made manifest throughout, but the central energy in Wenders’ film emerges from the combination of photographic images, still and moving alike, with spoken commentary and voice-over narration. Salgado’s voice predominates, as he tells his own story in excerpts from interviews filmed by Wenders. Lélia and Juliano get to speak for themselves as well (albeit only briefly).

Crucially, even if only in part, it is Wenders’ story also. He makes his adulation of Salgado (as “artist and adventurer”) abundantly clear, right from the start. And since Wenders’ own career as a globetrotting filmmaker, documentarian and photographer has implicit parallels with Salgado’s, the Salgado of The Salt of the Earth begins to look a little like the idealized hero Wenders might have imagined for one of his fiction films.

One of the stories that Wenders draws out of Salgado’s account of his career is stirring, even though a little too pat in its humanitarian uplift. The unavoidable despair that comes of the photographer’s encounters with famine and genocide in Africa gives way to the hope born of Lélia’s Instituto Terra and its vast project to replant Brazilian rainforests.

Even with input from Juliano (who filmed his father at work and in the field), however, The Salt of the Earth never really takes off as a fully developed film biography. It’s an admiring portrait of an admirable man, but one that seems so much in awe of the stark grandeur and devastating subject matter of Salgado’s best photographs that tougher, more searching questions and commentary are simply set aside.

Regardless, this film has plenty to offer—all those story fragments along with the chance to have a close look at Salgado’s work, with comments and context coming from the man himself. The main disappointment is that Wenders’ appreciation of Salgado’s work does so little justice to the complex challenges in the photographs themselves.