The images are positively biblical in nature, depicting thousands of muddy people at work in a massive pit. They could theoretically be laying the foundation for an ancient pyramid, but in actuality the famous photographs were taken in 1986 at Brazil's Serra Pelada gold mine by acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado. It's this photo-essay that first turned filmmaker Wim Wenders on to Salgado's art, and after a couple decades as a fan, Wenders, along with Sebastião's eldest son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has crafted a powerful documentary portrait of Sebastião's life and work. Wenders' perspective as an admiring outsider dovetails with Juliano's agenda, which involves getting better acquainted with a largely absentee father who was busy crisscrossing the globe to document the spectrum of humanity with his camera, and many of those stirring images are on display in the Oscar-nominated "The Salt of the Earth."
We learn that Sebastião began his professional life as an economist, of all things, before relocating from Brazil to France and picking up wife Lélia's camera. After a few years, the Salgados decided to go all in on Sebastião's new career, one that was surprisingly still informed by his old one. "He knew what was driving the world," Wenders says by way of serene narration that enhances this film's main attraction, Sebastião himself providing insight into his iconic images. Turns out the handsome septuagenarian, his face etched and tanned, is as eloquent in front of a camera as he is behind one. Whether marveling over the hypnotically symmetrical scales on a lizard or recounting a father preparing his son for burial, his thoughtful observations put to rest the notion that a photographer must be detached and dispassionate.
And though his photos offer a kind of beauty in truth, Sebastião began to purposely place himself where the pictures weren't very pretty. He documented firefighters on the job in the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, the plight of displaced refugees in the former Yugoslavia, and the brutal realities of life in Africa, from the famine-ravaged Sahel to humanitarian hell of Rwanda. "Everybody should see these images, to see how terrible our species is," Sebastião says. But his determination to bear witness exacted a heavy psychological toll, one that would be mitigated in the 1990's by returning to roots both literal and figurative, when Sebastião and Lélia began the painstaking process of reversing the environmental damage to the Salgado farm in Brazil and the Atlantic Forest.
Save for a few mentions, "The Salt of the Earth" ultimately doesn't delve too much into the relationship between Sebastião and his son Juliano, who clearly relishes the opportunity to accompany his father on a wildlife photography trek, but more from Sebastião's wife Lélia would have been most welcome. Though she's not the one traveling the world and composing the art, Lélia comes across as the silent brains of the Salgado operation, in charge of research, logistics, and child-rearing. The Salgados probably couldn't have put themselves in better hands than those of Wenders, who has also filmed documentaries like 1999's "The Buena Vista Social Club" and 2011's "Pina." The difference between those subjects and a photographer like Sebastião, according to Wenders? "The man shoots back."