By Rebecca Townesend
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The Salt of the Earth

This article is over 6 years, 6 months old
Issue 404

Documentary The Salt of the Earth introduces the career of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Born in 1944, he initially trained as an economist and this “equipped him with a…knowledge of…what was driving the world”.

He enthusiastically used a camera his wife Lelia bought and abandoned his career in economics to become a photographer. This was the start of an extraordinary creative partnership between Sebastiao and Lelia as they embarked on a series of photography projects.

This documentary is in part an attempt by the filmmakers, including his eldest son, to get to know Sebastiao and in part a broadly chronological recounting of some of his major projects. His 1977-1984 “Other Americas” series took him across South America, and a focus on Brazil in the early 1980s included documenting the landless workers’ movement.

He spent a lot of time in the Sahel region of Africa, immediately south of the Sahara, in 1984-1986 for “Sahel, The End of the Road”, reporting on the famine and working with Doctors Without Borders. The photographs are deeply distressing and his reflections on them are compelling and moving.

It is when Sebastiao is alone with his images that this documentary really shines. I started to get a glimpse of his politics and analysis of what he witnessed. He describes “knowing that a government is withholding food from its people”. His work across this region drew attention to what was happening and asked uncomfortable questions.

“Exodus”, 1993-1999, focused on displaced populations including in Rwanda and Yugoslavia where he photographed war, refugee camps and genocide. This period took a terrible toll on Sebastiao. He describes how when he left Rwanda he “no longer believed in anything”.

A period in Brazil working on a reforestation programme helped him to recover and return to photography.

From 2004-2013 he worked on another vast series, “Genesis”, when he turned for the first time to the animal world.

Despite clearly being haunted by the dreadful suffering he has witnessed and recorded I got an impression of a man who has huge compassion and respect for humanity and the planet.

He is an exceptional photographer who has shone a light on some of the most terrible crimes and disasters of the late 20th century.

He has included the global working class with his 1986-1991 project “Workers”, and has lived with and documented diverse communities all over the globe.

He learns so much about every community he lives with and is respectful of and interested in their traditions and values.

The body of work he and Lelia have produced has much to interest socialists and is a powerful rendering of a chaotic, violent and beautiful world.

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