A nominee this year for the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary, “The Salt of the Earth” is a biographical portrait of globe-trotting Sebastião Salgado, described as “a social photographer and a witness of the human condition.” The director is another such witness, Wim Wenders, who — like his fellow German auteur and contemporary, Werner Herzog — has lately devoted much of his career to documentaries, crafting such artist appreciations as the influential “The Buena Vista Social Club,” about Cuban musicians, and the essential “Pina,” about dance choreographer Pina Bausch.
Like its predecessors, “The Salt of the Earth” introduces viewers to the work of a distinctively individualistic artist while placing that work in something of a historical and social context. Now 71, the Brazil-born Salgado studied to be an economist before devoting himself to his new passion, photography, in 1973. His education made him a particularly keen critic of the money-motive that is the basis for much of the world’s injustice and violence, the harsh realities of which he has captured in haunting black-and-white photo-essays of hustling Brazilian gold miners, brutalized Rwandans and starved Ethiopian infants. Published internationally, in magazines and book collections, the pictures were beautiful and harrowing; they also, according to the film, “opened questions about what had caused these conditions in the first place.”
Through the decades, Salgado left his wife and children behind for months at a time, to devote himself to the peoples and regions he photographed, yet the movie — more interested in Salgado’s work than in his relationships — never suggests this lifestyle caused much distress or resentment among the members of his intact and apparently happy family. In fact, Salgado seems so well-adjusted and professional that he is less interesting than his photographs; he seems to be a model citizen, which means Wenders must find drama not in the travels of this “adventurer” but in the mostly nameless faces and alternately broken and proud bodies that appear before Salgado’s lens.
Some of Salgado’s crowd scenes suggest “the history of mankind,” the photographer says (his gold-mine images remind him of the building of the pyramids and the Tower of Babel), while his haunting studies of refugees with hollow eyes and skeletal limbs are expressionistic enough to suggest the less epic, more intimate moments of tragic silent films.
When Salgado switches to nature photography, his aesthetic remains much the same: One could dissolve from his panoramic shot of a refugee camp to his image of a penguin-crowded arctic landscape without much change in the composition. “I see that the iguana is also my cousin,” Salgado says, shooting in the Galapagos Islands; indeed, his portraits of reptiles, gorillas, walruses and other animals provide evidence of a kinship with humankind that explains the moral urgency of his environmental activism.
Perhaps he finds the animals a relief: He describes human history as “a story of madness,” and justifies his pictures of rooms filled with bones and children in coffins by remarking: “Everybody should see these images, to see how terrible our species is.”