The Salt of the Earth

Sebastião Salgado

Hmmm, I lost two subscribers shortly after I posted Monday on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” Touched a nerve, I reckon.

Moving on then, we just watched The Salt of the Earth, a 2014 film about the life of Sebastião Salgado by his son Juliano and the director Wim Wenders. My wife was more familiar with his photography than me, and we had a lively conversation about the idea of Salgado insinuating himself into these other cultures, whether his work helped the causes of oppressed people, whether the wealthy have a moral responsibility to create awareness and/or use their resources to reduce misery, and on and on. We had no answers as most of these situations are mired in politics along with centuries of religious fanaticism and zealotry.

Born in 1944, Sebastião Salgado was born in Brazil. His early work was as an economist for the International Coffee Organization and the World Bank but he switched to photography around 1973 after his wife, Lélia, gave him his first camera. His work in the 1980s included the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. An article in Firstpost by Natasha Desai last year said these photographs “begged the question of how shiny pieces of metal could blind almost 50,000 men from all walks of life. Salgado’s stark images captured the emotion, the struggle and the glint of their gold fever and marked a return of black and white photography to mainstream reportage.”

Then, working with Doctors Without Borders, he documented the famine in Africa in the mid-80s and for the next decade followed the movement of the people dispossessed due to war, famine and oppression in places such as Tanzania, Burundi, Bosnia, Congo, Croatia and Rwanda from 1994-99. In his own words, Salgado said what he had seen was “so shocking that at a certain point my mind and body started to give way. I had never imagined that man could be part of a species capable of such cruelty to its own members and I couldn’t accept it.”

This part of the film was the most difficult to watch. For most of us living our lives in relative comfort here in the United States, it’s hard to fathom the kind of suffering and human devastation occurring in other parts of the globe. And for the most part, our mass media gives short shrift to genocidal events and horrific wars unless there are ‘Americans’ involved.

Again, his work is not without controversy. In an article in Soundscapes.info, Hans Durrer reported that, “At a roundtable discussion organized by the Berliner Zeitung, the photographer Santu Mofokeng from Johannesburg, his colleague Akinbode Akinbiyi, who lives in Berlin, and Sylvester Ogbechie, a professor of art history at the University of Santa Barbara voiced their opinions on Salgado's work.”

An excerpt:

Akinbiyi: "... he photographs people in this heroic Riefenstahl-aesthetics. And he adds newer pictures that he calls "Genesis." Empty yet great landscapes from the Namib desert of 2005. And animals!"

Mofokeng: "This is this old colonial project. Africa is reduced to fauna and flora. And we are the fauna. We are the zoo for European observers. We natives know this well, and for a long time."

Ogbechiez: "Here, this photo of a Himba-girl — that is a totally pornographic photo of distress although she is young and healthy. Beautiful this cattle herd behind here, all very idyllic. It is a super postcard, it surely will sell well."

Due to the intensity of the work Salgado and his wife returned to Brazil, the farmlands in the small town of Aimorés, where he had spent his childhood. Because of deforestation the land was devoid of life so they began a journey to heal the land. A forestry engineer named Renato de Jesus, who worked for the controversial multinational corporation Vale, came on board to help them revive the land. According to Smithsonian Magazine Salgado said, “We are not radicals. We’re not in an ivory tower. We need everybody: companies, governments, mayors. Everybody.”

Also in the Smithsonian article: De Jesus presented a plan to hire some two-dozen workers, who attacked the invasive African grasses by hand and with metal tools. Salgado and Lélia secured a donation of 100,000 seedlings from Vale’s nursery. The Salgados also went to governments and foundations worldwide to secure another key input: money. When the rains returned in 1999, they worked their way up the valley, placing the seedlings roughly ten feet apart, 2,000 trees per hectare. Fig species, long-leafed andá-açu, Brazilian firetrees and other legumes were meant to grow fast and die young. This first phase would provide shade, trap moisture, give shelter to birds and insects—and help heal the soil by restoring depleted nitrogen.

In 2002, after the seedlings took root, he wanted to be a photographer again. That led to The Genesis Project, 2004-2012. The eight-year project took Salgado to 32 locations ranging from the polar regions to the Galapagos with the goal of presenting a view of the planet when mankind lived in harmony with nature. Inspired by the reforestation of his family farm and environs in Brazil, Salgado set out to document the Earth’s pristine natural sanctuaries with the hope of inspiring their preservation.

There were other ‘periods’ of work and travel I did not mention in this post but if you’re interested in checking out more about the man and his photography, here’s a 25 minute video worth a look:

Also, for you in Tucson, we picked up our copy of The Salt of the Earth from the newly remodeled Casa Video. There are two copies upstairs in the Documentary Biography section.

And now…