Over the course of four decades, former World Bank economist Sabastião Salgado has travelled the globe with his camera, telling stories of war, famine, and the resiliency of the human spirit through his stunning shots of people and landscapes. In telling Salgado’s story, director Wim Wenders and his co-director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the subject’s son), frequently use shots of Salgado’s work projected against mirrors that reflect back on Salgado, literally making Salgado inseparable from his work. The photos and stories chosen, meanwhile, show the evolution of Salgado as an artist, and of Earth as a collective entity over the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The rest of The Salt of the Earth sticks to a conventional documentary profile structure, connecting biographical bits to footage of Salgado at work in recent years, with Salgado talking about the origins of various photographs. Some of those stories form the heart of the film: Salgado’s work has taken him through dark places, including widespread famine in West Africa and genocides in Serbia and Rwanda. One series of photos from Rwanda in 1994 left Salgado in a dark enough place that he was concerned he’d completely lost his faith in humanity. More recent years, though, have seen him refocus on his native Brazil, where Salgado and his wife, Lélia, have worked to restore and conserve a section of the Atlantic Forest.
The culmination of Salgado’s career from showing the worst of humanity to the best creates a tremendous sense of scope and perspective. It also makes his more recent work all the more remarkable. With their documentary, Wenders and the younger Salgado essentially let the elder Salgado’s work speak for itself. That work speaks volumes.