"I also befriended a whale."
By the time Sebastião Salgado says those words, late in The Salt of the Earth, there's no doubt he's speaking literally. Co-directors Win Wenders' and Salgado's son Juliano's documentary chronicling the life of the photographer is so full of jaw-dropping moments that getting up close and personal with a whale merits only a passing mention. Besides, the 71-year-old photographer has just been showing us incredible, close-up black-and-white photographs of a mountain gorilla in the wild to be included in his newest photography book and exhibit "Genesis," which he describes as "a love letter to planet Earth."
That Salgado could write such a letter is remarkable, given what his lens has seen. Salgado was born in Brazil, the sole brother of seven girls. While growing up on a farm nestled on the banks of the Rio Doce, he says he yearned to find stories over the ring of hills that defined his world. At the behest of his father, he went to college to study economics and met Leila, his love at first sight who would become his lifelong muse. They became heavily involved in leftist politics and were forced into exile in France by Brazil's military dictatorship in 1969. When she bought a camera for her work, he instantly took to it, and a couple of years later he quit his job and set out to become a photographer, roaming the world, going wherever the story took him.
His first major photo book, The Other Americas, documented his repeated tours across South America, lasting from 1977-1984. Salgado's crisp, black-and-white images show his knack for bringing out the humanity in his subjects. He would go to any length to gain their trust, such as sleeping in a bare concrete room in the mountains of Mexico until the natives thought he was tough enough to stay. We see him rolling across the windswept gravel to get candid shots of a walrus family, befriending tribesmen in the Amazon rainforest, and chasing musk oxen across the Siberian tundra — whatever it takes to get the shot.
It's the images Salgado captured when he was the only person willing to get the shots that make up the melancholy soul of the movie. His photographs were some of the first to call attention to the Ethiopian drought and famine of 1984. He got the shots because he was willing to ride into the desert in the back of a truck filled with starving refugees. A decade of war and disaster later, Salgado drove down a Rwandan road he described as "150 kilometers of death," where he documented a genocide in progress. "Everybody should see these images, to see how terrible our species is," he says in the film. "When I left there, I no longer believed in anything."
Wenders, whose own storied film career stretches from Paris, Texas to Until the End of the World, crafts a compelling arc of the life and career of Salgado using his photographs and a tag-team narration with Juliano. Early in the film, Wenders says of discovering a Saldago photograph for the first time, "Whoever took it had to be both a great photographer and a great adventurer." The Salt of the Earth proves his instinct was right.