This amazing film, playing in theaters now, is a documentary about the life and work of the great Brazilian photographer and photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, who is now in his 70s.
The film was made by German avant-garde filmmaker Wim Wenders together with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. The trio visit many of the places in the world Sebastiao had photographed (all in black and white only) and accompany him on his photo shoots, asking him questions, eliciting his reflections.
Salgado had originally studied to be an economist – he earned a Ph.D. in economics – and has a deep understanding of the conditions that result in the environmental disasters and accompanying social disruptions of war, violence, starvation, exploitation and genocide. In the film, the authors intercut Salgado’s images, many of which are emotionally devastating to see, with his reflections on what he sees and documents. These reveal him to be a deeply compassionate witness of the “heart of darkness” in the human presence on this Earth. Not only disasters of war and destruction attract his attention but as an inveterate traveler the inhabitants of the remotest regions of the Earth – the Sahel, the Arctic, the deep rain-forest – where he would often spend many months, documenting not only the place but the people of the place, especially the children.
In the middle of his life Salgado seemed to have reached a turning point, where he could no longer tolerate witnessing and documenting the awesome and brutal destructiveness of human beings towards life. He stopped being a disaster photographer and became a nature photographer – accompanied by his son, one of the two film-makers of this documentary. Here he revels in the magnificent color and beauty of plants and animals of all kinds, and the ordinary people in their mode of being living close to nature, as the “Salt of the Earth”.
He and his wife had inherited a piece of land in his native Brazil that had been completely denuded of plant life and deteriorated soil in his absence of many years as a global traveler (also because he was fleeing political repression in Brazil). They decided to restore the land with irrigation and ecological restoration practices, thereby in a dozen years or so generating a luxurious farm with greenhouses, producing food and produce in abundance and beauty.
“Salt of the Earth” is a mysterious phrase that scholars have puzzled over. It occurs in one of the sayings of Jesus – in the Sermon of the Mount, (Matthew 5, 13) where Jesus is addressing his disciples, calling them “salt of the Earth”, but warning them, in the next line, “if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of man.”
In the immediately following verse, Jesus gives a second metaphor to describe his disciples: “Ye are the light of the Earth. A city that is built on a hill cannot be hid.”
In ancient times, before the advent of refrigeration, salt was of course the main means of preserving food like meat and fish, and bringing out the flavor of food. Salt was also a necessity in lands far from the sea, where the salt essential to human health and diet needed to be carried from afar. Salt or saltiness is that quality that preserves and brings out the life-force and zest in a situation or event. “Salt” is also symbolically a quality of skeptical realism, as in the expression to take an idea or information “with a grain of salt.” Perhaps the Master Jesus is saying to his disciples that unless you can convey the new teaching of salvation with excitement and zest, but also with down to earth realism, you might as well forget it – you won’t convey its real value.