Rarely has suffering been portrayed so beautifully as in the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado.
He is well- known for his striking black-and-white portraits of famine, displacement, environmental catastrophe, war and poverty (and the labors undertaken to escape it), photos that, in many cases, must be described as gorgeous.
In “The Salt of the Earth,” a documentary by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s son, the elder Salgado tells the story behind the photos, and of the man who took them. It is a fascinating film, and if it skimps somewhat on the moral complications of this kind of art, it holds nothing back in terms of volume: Image after image grabs our eye and often grips our throat.
The first photos we see are some of Salgado’s best-known — workers in an open gold mine in his native Brazil, thousands of them, laboring in what looks like nothing so much as hell on Earth. They look like slaves, Salgado says, but in reality are slaves “only to the idea of becoming rich.”
It is a telling comment.
Salgado began his career as an economist. With wife Lelia’s blessing, he put down the suit, picked up a camera and traveled the world, to more than 100 countries, taking photographs. His economic training informs his outlook; he not only sees the inequities in the world, he understands their root causes.
He often left his wife, Juliano and another son behind, sometimes, for years at a time. This is discussed but not dwelled upon. Instead, we see what he found on his travels: famine in Africa, genocide in Rwanda, the towering oil-well fires set by Saddam Hussein’s forces evacuating Kuwait.
At times, it can be depressing. The sheer number of portrayals of human suffering is almost overwhelming. But Wenders and Juliano Salgado pull us back from that with the elder Salgado’s descriptions of how the photos were made, and the circumstances.
His are stunning, powerful photos. And beautiful.
Salgado, speaking mostly in French, has a clear empathy for his subjects.
Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for the Arizona Republic.