“The Salt of the Earth,” Wim Wenders’s new documentary about the life and work of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, elegantly inhabits a moral and aesthetic paradox. Mr. Salgado’s photographs illuminate some of the worst horrors of the modern world: starvation, war, poverty, displacement. They are also beautiful, dramatic visual artifacts, and their power has a double effect. We are drawn into the contemplation of terrible realities, but at the same time our attention turns to the person bearing witness.
That is not a fault, either in Mr. Salgado’s lifelong project or in Mr. Wenders’s consideration of it. It’s just a fact of their common vocation. The filmmaker brings his mellow humanism and globe-trotting curiosity into an appreciative, easygoing dialogue with the photographer’s single-minded vision. They are a well-matched pair. Though Mr. Wenders does not appear on camera, he is present as a narrator and a sensibility, recounting his early meetings with Mr. Salgado and his collaboration with the photographer’s son Juliano, who is the co-director of “The Salt of the Earth.”
The elder Mr. Salgado, for his part, occupies the screen with quiet charisma. Speaking in French and Portuguese — he left Brazil during the military dictatorship and lived for many years in Paris — he modestly tells the story of an adventurous life. Raised in a rural part of central Brazil, he was trained as an economist before turning to photography, a career change he undertook with the support of his wife, Lelia, a frustratingly peripheral figure in the film until its final section.
Leaving her and the young Juliano for months at a time, Mr. Salgado set out to document unexplored aspects of human life, often focusing on remote areas and vulnerable or exploited people. “The Salt of the Earth” begins with the contemplation of pictures taken in and around an enormous, open gold mine, a crowded, infernal place in which Mr. Salgado’s camera discovers humanity in its raw, desperate essence.
Those images were part of “Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age,” a collection published in 1993. Subsequent projects included “Migrations” (2000) and “Sahel: The End of the Road” (2004), whose images of famine and war in Africa are made more wrenching by the photographer’s calm, heartbroken narration of the circumstances in which they were taken.
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