I have just watched one of the most extraordinary documentary films I have ever seen. It is made by Wim Wenders, the noted feature director, and it is on the life and work of Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer whose amazing pictures from 120 countries have illuminated our understanding of the world over the last several decades.
Wenders worked in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano, as a co-director, and the photographer’s remarkable wife Lélia, an active participant in his work over the years, was also involved in helping with the film, which is called The Salt of the Earth.
Anyone who has seen the mind-blowing shots Salgado made in the 1980s of the Serra Pelada, a huge open-cast gold mine in Brazil in which 50,000 workers were toiling like slaves, carrying bags of stuff up endless primitive ladders in an environment of clinging mud, will never have forgotten this most famous of the photographer’s work. In the film he is quoted as saying that he was thunderstruck when he came upon the mine, feeling as though right before him was the whole history of mankind, the building of the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, and so on. All that mud had to be moved up and out of the mine. If anyone fell from the ladders, they would risk taking down those coming up behind them. “I went up and down several times,” he remarks, “and I never fell. No one fell. These guys climbed it 50 or 60 times a day…All these men together comprised a completely organized world, but in complete madness. You get the impression they were slaves. But there wasn’t a single slave. They were slaves only to the idea of getting rich.”
They came from all walks of life, university lecturers, intellectuals, farm labourers, urban workers, all trying their luck, because when they hit a vein of gold in one spot, everyone working there had the right to choose one sack, and that sack might contain a kilo of gold, or nothing. “At that very moment, one’s freedom was at stake,” he said.
The importance of these remarkable pictures of this unearthly event, which appear at the beginning of the movie, appears to have been, for Salgado, to solidify his tendency to undertake massive projects to each of which he was prepared to devote years on one subject. The film runs through these extraordinary adventures one by one, and the result is an explanation of the human condition such as I have never before seen. It begins with him surrounded by a nearly-naked tribe in Papua New Guinea, famous for its tribes remote from all outsiders (they are dancing around for him, spears in hand), and then moves to a remote island far north in the East Siberian sea. Then to Niger, in 1973 where he found women standing in line for food during a drought. Lélia worked to support him when he decided to give up his promising career as an economist bound for the World Bank, and was active in distributing his photos so that after a few successful placements, they decided he should embark on his first big project, known as The Other Americas.
At the time they were in exile from the brutal military government of Brazil. “I deeply missed Latin America, so I decided to travel around all Brazil’s neighbouring countries.” It was the era of liberation theology, and he accompanied a young priest who was organizing the peasants into cooperatives and introducing them to the idea of solidarity. His first pictures were of the Saraguras, a very religious tribe of Indians, but great drinkers. Half of them would get totally drunk every weekend. “Never in my life had I met a people with such a different sense of time,” he says. “The time I spent with them felt like a century. Everything went so slow. It was another way of thinking, a different rhythm.” Among the Mixe, a group in northern Mexico, he found their production methods were from medieval times, but what distinguished them was their love of music. Everyone played an instrument: “they didn’t have to work, they could play their instruments for that.” They put him in a cold cement room to test if he really wanted to stay with them and after a few days moved him to a more comfortable place. This enabled him to get closer to them and “I really enjoyed my time there.”
This is the way the film goes, Salgado’s gentle comments illustrated by his pictures of these people most of whom seem almost mysterious in their look of withdrawn calmness. “The power of a photograph lies in that split second when you catch a glimpse of that person’s life. When you take a shot, the portrait is not yours alone. It belongs to the other person too.” The project took him eight years, during which he simply disappeared for long periods.
Finally able to return to Brazil after more than ten years of exile, he decided to learn more of his own country, so he took a tour of the northeast which occupied him for two years, photographing these people with their worn faces, and their occasionally strange, usually religious habits such as their different methods of caring for the bodies of dead children according to whether they died with their eyes open or closed. Coffins could be rented and used dozens of times. “It’s a region where life and death are very close, he observes, over shots of the coffin-renting shops. Some remarkable shots of the movement of “landless workers”, thousands of them, learning how politics was run and how it affected them. “These people have a moral force, a physical strength even though they are frail and eat poorly,” he remarks. He portrays the area as like the Sahel, barren, and he photographs families as they give up on the land and trudge off to the cities.
Then on to the Sahel itself, that area of drought in Africa south of the Sahara, where he photographed whole populations deep in the throes of starvation. These pictures are so stark one can almost not watch them: people reduced to nothing but skin and bones, lying dead in the road, lying in piles of dead, occasionally watched from a few feet by a surviving family member. He photographs the ritual each family observes of washing the dead before burial, an imperative even where there is little water for anything else.
He records that the Ethiopian government was actually withholding food supplies from these dying people. When he returned a few years later, the government was driving these tribes out of Tigray, under brutal attack from two helicopters. They were hoping to get food when they reached Sudan, and he has a haunting picture of the people, arrived to find nothing to eat. “I must have spent two months there,” he comments. The people were in a Doctors Without Borders camp, but it had no water, and they all had to be moved elsewhere. He rode 300 or 400 kilometres in a tuck with these dying people. There was plenty of water at their destination, but that is where they died, because there was no food. The suffering of these people illustrated by his photos, is almost beyond imagination.
Then to Mali in 1985, another drought, only women and children left, because the men had gone to west Africa with as promise to send aid, “but few of them returned,” he comments. Here, Doctors Without Borders did great work, brought the people through, so that famished, malnourished children “in two or three weeks recovered completely.” He returned to the Sahel over and over again, and the book of his photos edited by his wife drew attention to the conditions there.
One by one, the film goes through these major productions with this determined, gentle and unremitting artist. Workers, took him to 30 countries, and six years to complete. From 1986 to 1991, “I wanted to pay homage to all the men and women who built the world around us.” He travelled to the four corners of the world, photographing steel workers in the Soviet Union, ship-wreckers in Bangladesh, going to sea with fisherman in Galicia and Sicily, observing tea pickers in Rwanda, and so on.
In 1991 he determined he had to photograph the hellish inferno created by the withdrawing Sadaam Hussein’s troops when they fired hundreds of oil wells. He shows here some firefighters from Calgary, among the hundreds from all over the world who turned up to bring the wells under control. Next in a chapter they called Exodus he dealt with the army of refugees from India, Vietnam, Iraq, South America and elsewhere, but repeatedly he returned to Africa, the continent that had caught his imagination.
He was doing his project on the displacement of peoples when the Rwanda genocide broke out, which began a huge exodus of people to any neighbouring country. “I was one of the first to arrive (in Tanzania)…. .the catastrophe was everywhere.” The roads were full of people, fleeing with whatever they could carry. .”We headed in the opposite direction, towards the border. I entered Rwanda and it was terrifying, the number of dead bodies I saw on that road… It was 150 kilometres by road to Kigali, 150 kilometres of dead bodies.” He turned back, went into the camps where he remarks that “hell was taking the place of paradise,” a megacity springing up on this beautiful savanna, where a million people gsthered within days.
Next came the Yugoslav war, to show that “violence and brutality are not the monopoly of remote countries…..violence was everywhere, but what disgusted me the most was to see how contagious hatred was.” The whole Serbian population of Krajina was expelled, evicted from their homes overnight, with no place to go, having their next-door neighbours shooting at them. In camps there were only women, children and older men. The younger men had all been held and murdered. This happened “among people with a European standard of living, a European intellectual level, a European infrastructure, and they lost everything.
“We are a ferocious animal, we humans are terrible animals. Here in Europe, in Africa, in South America, everywhere, we are extremely violent. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a story of repression, a tale of madness.”
Then to the Congo in 1994, another catalogue of brutality and killing. where in a few days the Goma region received more than 2,000,000 people, all fleeing some disaster or another, Hutus who had fled Tutsis, Tutsis who had fled Hutus. Cholera was spreading and people began to die like ants 12,000 to 15,000 died every day.
“I was taking photos of these piles of corpses… Everyone should see these images, to see how terrible our species is. When I got out of there I was ill, I didn’t have any infectious diseases, but my soul was sick.”
On a return visit to Rwanda he went to a church where people had believed themselves to be safe, but were massacred anyway, a schoolroom, laden with decaying bodies. Two years later, some 2 million Rwanda refugees were still in the Congo, and 250,000 of them in a column left the city and entered into the Congo forest “We lost track of them. Everyone knew there were 250,000 lost people. Nobody knew where they were. Six months later they began appearing near Kisangali. The UN took a train there to drop off supplies, but he stayed. “I spent three days with these people, who kept arriving, columns and columns of them, to think that when they left there were 250,000 of them and only 40,000 made it here. 210,000 people were missing. Then they were expelled again, from Kisangani, setting out again for Rwanda. People began to be delirious, to lose their minds, driven to madness by their experiences, and he adds: “In fact, these people who were expelled were never heard from again.”
What he says next is like a summary of all his experiences: “That was my last trip in Rwanda. When I came out of there, I no longer believed in anything, in any salvation for the human species. We didn’t deserve to live. No one deserved to live.”
Back at his father’s farm he found a denuded lands cape. His wife suggested they should replant the forest: so they began to do it, and in ten years a “full-blown miracle” occurred. The farm, full of trees and bushes and plants, and all of the returned animals from the past that had left, has since became known as the Instituto Terra, and is now a National park.
This film is about a man who has witnessed the worst that human beings can do to each other, and it has driven him to desperation.
The Salt of the Earth, released 2014, 110 minutes, available through Netflix….