Some minutes into the UK premiere of Wim Wenders and Juliano Riberdo Salgado's The Salt of the Earth at the benefit opening of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, someone whispers in my ear: “So what does this have to do with human rights?”
The film offers no simple answer in its trace of the artistic process of Sebastião Salgado (Juliano's father) as he travels through a forest with his camera, across the Arctic waiting for a polar bear to tell its story, or sitting alone, facing a vista of fields, vast mountains and sky, and telling us that this was where he learned how to see. Yet its depiction of the life and art of one of 20th century's most interesting photographers invites us to think more deeply about the relationship between visual immediacy, our unease with formal beauty as so often expressed in critiques of social photography, and moral clarity.
The Salt of the Earth captures a deep tension between the immediacy of Salgado's images and the breadth of time and worlds he traverses to reach these moments so that whole lifetimes and histories can be captured within a flash second. Even though framing and composition are of paramount narrative significance for Salgado, so that a story cannot be properly told in its full dramatic intensity without the correct relationship between earth and sky and between light and creatures, he does not impose the demands of his own sense of time upon others. He waits, follows, runs, climbs, or jumps behind and alongside his subjects as they are or have to be. He invites them to test him and to share what they will. The images of lives and circumstances that emerge are the culmination of mutual trust, friendship and symbiosis developed between the photographer and his subjects over weeks, months, even years.
To what extent has Salgado's career been driven primarily by an aesthetic desire for striking imagery, a restless hunger for adventure, or deep ethical concern with the human condition? The film seems to put such ambiguities on display, confirming once more how they are deeply entwined in the unfolding of Salgado's life and work. The visual desire to look at hell on earth that compelled Salgado to go to the burning oil wells of Kuwait in 1991 led to the Dantesque glamour of images of heroic firefighters. But exploring the devastated landscape, he found also the essential cruelty of the whole context of war and social inequality encapsulated in unexpected images: of birds that can no longer fly, horses going mad by imprisonment within the royal garden walls, and isolated, abandoned people whom other victims, those able to flee, considered disposable. These forlorn creatures were able to tell their stories to the world through the lens of someone who saw them clearly because he had arrived upon the scene, not with preconceptions about how to tell the story of destruction and aid, but with a fearless desire to look around him, and to produce images that combined truth and beauty.
In the Sahel in 1984-85, following the pictorial logic of contrasting foreground with background, of seeing and depicting creatures against landscapes real or fantastical, Salgado saw unfathomable numbers of people flooding a landscape that seemed to belong to the beginning of time. In sharp contrast to preconceptions about African poverty or backwardness, the suffering wrought by famines and government oppression in his pictures was taking place where it should not be. In composing the picture, the artist's gaze arrives at an almost religious sentiment, of Eden desecrated at an impossible scale. We do not reach such depths of moral clarity through consuming images alone.
Pictures do not always say what we might want them to say, nor resolve the complex problems that they capture through their unifying gaze. Salgado's vision would not have emerged as clearly in the film had the directors been less comfortable with silences. Even as it traverses continents and years, many different cultures and different states of living and dying, the story of the photographs is passed with great naturalness here and there between Salgado, his father, son Juliano, wife Leila, Wenders as if they were sitting together in a circle, talking intimately, with us, with each other, father to son to grandson to wife and mother to friend. The directors never let go of that intimate focus, nor let slip the group's particular chemistry.
Much is left unexplained and undefended: for example, the risks and sacrifices inherent in the partnership of Sebastiao and Leila, who have long worked together yet spent many years apart in the process, the relationships between fathers and sons, the photographer and his audience. Yet neither are these issues completely cast aside. We do not need to be told everything, we are simply given a hint that something might be there.
This aesthetic of restraint suggests one answer to my companion's question. An artist like Sebastião Salgado does something other than bear witness to hidden abuses, share with us what we cannot otherwise know, or shame us into looking at what we ignore. But that something is no less a route to the elemental human. Against the fear of fatigue, of inundation by media images of suffering, of the same story told over and over again, the pathway of such an artist to the images he finds and creates can help us begin from the beginning again, to look at the world afresh, as if it were a blank canvas at a moment of genesis. We do not have to agree with Salgado's ways of seeing, but they are an invitation to retrace our steps to the visual prehistoric of our own innocence.