What’s more telling: words or pictures?
This isn’t a trick, there’s no wrong answer, but think about that in the context of recounting a story. Especially in journalism. A write-up can tell the facts, share perspective, and be timely. Photographs can too, but one could posit that snapshots have a richer emotional depth, and the ability to distill something to its essence. Remember the pictures of Rod Blagojevich in front of the “Warning: Rats” sign? That’s his legacy. Right there is the story of a slick-haired, doomed Illinois politician, boiled down to a loaded shot in an alley.
Sebastião Salgado’s been taking pictures for roughly 40 years, and he is the subject of Julian Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary The Salt of the Earth. This is a magnificently assembled, reflective biography. Selgado is a spiritual artist, a heartbreaking and talented figure. While he may be next-level esteemed, his experiences dragged his soul through the mud. The Salt of the Earth not only digs into the historical, technical, and emotional processes of an artist, but composes a tone poem about the very notion of painting with light.
The Salt of the Earth examines two sides of Selgado’s story. Shot in splendid black and white, Wim Wenders helms half the doc as a chronological recount of Salgado’s life and images. On the digital side, Selgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro offers a firsthand account of Selgado on assignments today. Through this back and forth, we see Selgado’s evolution and spiritual battering.
Saldago’s photography possesses an epic intimacy, a gracefully articulated humanity with its warts and all. He has the intense depth of field and stunning greyscale of Ansel Adams, but as a self-professed “social photographer,” his subject matter can take him to worrisome places. He’s photographed Rwandan genocide, Ethiopian displacement and starvation, the mines of Serra Pelada in Brazil. The pictures are devastating, to say the least. Perhaps these photos come from his need to express gratitude, or an unending desire to explore worlds not typically given a platform. The guy’s not trying to brag that he’s worldly, or brave, or daring enough to look when others turn away; he’s just marked by his “empathy for the human condition.” Selgado shows and, in essence, tells a great deal about the world we’re living in.
That said, The Salt of the Earth isn’t immune to perceived coffee table book posturing. It’s a thing of beauty for certain, but it’s like the Book of Selgado. He gets to control his narrative, show the pictures he wants to show, and is seldom challenged to extrapolate. Selgado’s just sincerely wistful. The filmmakers accept the magisterial quality of work and the grander ambitions on display, which is strange considering Selgado and his son’s admittedly strained family dynamic. Still, The Salt of the Earth lets us look for a long time and consider Selgado’s photography in the same way Selgado might. You may not want to see death and illness and abuse, but The Salt of the Earth doesn’t bully a point. The pictures do the best talking.
When The Salt of the Earth is frank and allows us to stare into this man’s soul as he stares back through his lens, the film is blisteringly focused, ready to stare unto God’s green earth and say, “Smile.” How Bergman-esque.