Returning Salt to the Earth

Documentary Photography




Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian photographer who turned 70 this year, is one of the most famous documentarians of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. His work spans four decades, covers nearly a hundred countries, and a wide array of themes. Salt of the Earth (Le sel de la terre, 2014) a documentary by his son Juliano Salgado and Wim Wenders, chronicles the photographic projects the elder Salgado conceived with his wife and hardly-acknowledged collaborator, Lélia.


The first word that came to mind after I watched Salt of the Earth is “eminence.” Eminere, from which eminence is derived, signifies a “hill.” Suppose Salgado’s lifework as a photographer, meticulously and chronologically presented in the film, can be conveyed in metaphor. That metaphor is a Biblical narrative, where “salt of the earth” and “hill” are used in the same context. Jesus Christ is reported to have said in Saint Matthew’s account of the Sermon of the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot...You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”


Salgado’s eminence—or, his life on the hill—results from an oeuvre of photographs that remarkably reveal the human condition. It is the condition, for example, of miners in a Brazilian gold mine; the condition of children living with famine and drought in Ethiopia and Mali; the condition of living with the brutality of the Rwandan genocide. To stretch the metaphor, Salgado’s eminence is not one that excludes or pontificates. His work does not revel in dogma, even propaganda. If anything, by looking at his photographs, we are invited to climb to the vantage point from which he looks at the world. In this way, his work is even evangelistic, as the Sermon on the Mount was. To be eminent, then, is to show others the way the world looks—“You are the light of the world.”

A number of images shown in Salt of the Earth are hard to look at. They show humans at their worst, as if on the fringes of existence. Images of human suffering can anaesthetize the eye, and it is possible that after repeated viewing, the soul might become emotionless. But I sensed that Salgado managed to avoid being blinded by what he saw and recorded.


Yet, Salgado’s eminent work, strictly speaking, as it seemed to me while I watched the film, was only a response, an after-the-fact. For a photograph is “evidence,” a word derived from the Latin evidentia, an appearance from which inferences may be drawn. The evidentiary photographs serve as proof of what has occurred, and hence cannot forestall occurrences, such as genocide, the displacement of people affected by war, or the destruction of oil wells in Kuwait.


After his Rwanda project, Salgado became weary of providing evidence of human trauma, humanity’s inhumanity. With time, he saw enough suffering and pain to make him tired, so he returned to a devastated farm in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest that had once belonged to his father.


The film ends with a narration of Salgado’s work as an environmental activist and nature photographer. He began to look at and record evidence of parts of Earth that weren’t ravished, still intact. Together with his wife, he restored a small part of the Atlantic Forest; their restorative work culminated in an organization dedicated to reforestation, conservation, and environmental education. The trees Salgado and his wifeplant, as years fold into each other, are symbolic of the regenerative potentials of the earth. It is in this sense that one might say Salgado grafted his eminence to the earth. He put life and pungency back into a deforested farm. He became salt.