Movie Review: The Salt of the Earth

For over four decades, photographer Sebastião Salgado has been making his way through the continents, all the while capturing images of conflict, starvation and exodus, and this new film from Wim Wenders sees him reflect on the humanity and the horror that he has witnessed through a camera lens in that time.

The documentary starts gently enough. It tells of Salgado’s childhood, of him falling in love and having children. It tells of how he would disappear into the earth’s darkest corners for months at a time. It cuts to the modern day and sees him and his son Juliano (who co-directs this film) photographing Walruses. Nice stuff, you think.

Then, shit gets real. The documentary suddenly takes a very dark turn as Salgado recounts his time in Ethiopia during the 1980s and of genocide in, amongst other places, Rwanda. For long, long minutes the screen is filled with black and white images of the dead and the dying. Of deceased babies, of people who have been brutally murdered, or fallen to disease. His shots are truly stunning, morbidly beautiful even, but this is undoubtedly a very tough watch. And so it should be. His images are vital, harrowing and truthful.

Unsurprisingly, seeing so much pain and misery left the photographer at odds with his own species. He talks of humans in incredibly negative terms, as though he sees them as a walking plague, destroying themselves and the earth. Thankfully, his love of life was restored through embarking on a new project, the discovery of pristine territories, of wild fauna and flora, of grandiose landscapes. It acted as a reminder of the planet’s beauty and seemingly pulled him away from the edge of despair.

While it was a subject initially alien to him in terms of photography, it led him to actively work in conservation. He has since pretty much rebuilt an entire Brazilian rainforest and, in essence, rebuilt himself as well.

The Salt of the Earth won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly not a Friday night date movie, but it is a very interesting and rewarding watch, if a difficult one at times.

bobby townsend


Review by Bobby Townsend. Salt of the Earth is released 9th April 2015.