The life and work Sebastiao Salgado, ‘The Salt of the Earth’
A 2014 film by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. The Travelling Film Festival (from the Sydney Film Festival) Majestic Cinema, Nambucca Heads. Sunday Nov 9 14.
I first saw his work in the Sunday Times magazine that was marvellous for photo-journalists like Don McCullin, bringing the world into leisurely English Sunday mornings.
For decades he travelled the world with his Leica, especially South America, interested in outsiders, refugees, workers, minorities. He began the “Genesis” project when he came back from Africa, exhausted. In the film he says he was very very ill, not physically, but filled with despair at what humans can do. He had witnessed death in droughts in Ethiopia and Niger, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Congo, and then when Yugoslavia broke up. He talks to the images, knows what happened to some of the babies he photographed.
His son interviews Salgado’s grandfather, old, deaf, walking with a stick. He’s sad, says it hasn’t rained for years, erosion is a terrible problem, and he doesn’t know what to do. At the same time he mentions how much money he made from timber, money he used to educate his son Salgado and seven daughters.
Genesis was an eight-year project to capture the last wild places in the world. He said he had to learn how to take landscape and wildlife photographs. “I had lost faith and I had stopped doing photography, but when this forest came back to life my wish was to do something linked to nature and came to this idea to go and shoot the pristine world. Who knows? If pictures can help us to come back to our planet and remember we are animals like other animals.”[i]
I wish he could see it now. Léla suggested replanting the rainforest that once surrounded the family farm in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, that they inherited. They began not knowing what they were doing, but each year learnt more and more plantings survived. They founded the environmental education center Instituto Terra in 1998 the farm is now a national park with two million trees and jaguars have returned, and they run a successful business selling seedlings. His wife Léla was great support as he travelled the world, bringing up his children and organising shows, books and helping to plan projects. I would like to have heard more from her, and as I am a photographer, a little more from him, on the tools of his trade and his technique, like why he only shoots in black & white.
The man comes across as resilient, hard-working and with wonderful integrity. He, together with his wife, have achieved so much that I felt so lazy walking out of the cinema.
Why take a photograph?
The celebrated war photographer Don McCullin, having seen horror in war and famine took to landscape photography as well. Either way he says, ’This is why I really believe photography is about making an emotional commitment to where you are and what you’re doing. I try to cut out the technical side as much as possible. If you’re in a refugee camp, the knapsack you carry on your back is the weight of moral obligation, and the fear of failing . . . Even now, when I stand on the edge of a field here in Somerset to take a landscape picture, it’s not about getting the photograph, it’s about being there. Don’t waste time.’[ii]
That is the hardest thing to do, to be there while behind a machine. I went round the world with two small Pentax ME Supers (one colour, one B&W) then sold them when I realised I was looking for light, shade, composition and not being there, interacting as one human to another or just being mindful of the particular environment, I only took photography up again seriously when i moved to this most beautiful of environments,
McCullin says he “wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people . . . I’ve seen a few men executed in front of me and you can’t stop it and you never forget the day it happened in your life.”[iii] He has said the images haunt him, poison his world and doesn’t feel his work changed anything, and since then the power of the image as documentary has declined. Susan Sontag wrote, ‘Don McCullin’s photographs of emaciated Biafrans in the early 1970s had less impact for some people than Werner Bischof’s photographs of Indian famine victims in the early 1950s because those images had become banal, and the photographs of Tuareg families dying of starvation in the sub-Sahara that appeared in magazines everywhere in 1973 must have seemed to many like an unbearable replay of a now familiar atrocity exhibition.’[iv]
However, when you hear Salgado talking to the image, and giving you the context, it is highly effective. The film is full of heartbreaking moments. (I also highly recommend the documentary simply called ‘McCullin’ by David Morris, Jacqui Morris, UK, 2012 – though the newsreel archive footage is very hard to watch).
Occasionally cameras save your life. in 1968, McCullin’s Nikon took an AK-47 bullet meant for him.
[i] Brian Appleyard, ‘Sebastiao Salgado: The Unfiltered Lens’, Sunday Times, 3 March, 2013.
[ii] Don McCullin, ‘The art of seeing’, guardian.co.uk, 15 November, 2012.
[iii] ‘Don McCullin: The human factor’ Interview by Aida Edemariam, The Observer, August 6, 2005.
[iv] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux,1973, p19.