Earlier this week, I went to the Angelika Theater in SoHo to watch a documentary, The Salt of the Earth. The documentary follows the life of an incredibly talented photographer Sebastião Salgado, who identifies as a social documentary photographer, from the perspective of his son Juliano Salgado. Early on, after meeting his wife, because of the political problems in Brazil, he moved to France and started a family there. He had left his parents on their land in Brazil, and was unable to return for many years.
Through his career, he has traveled the world and documented the lives and perspectives of various groups, including the lives of workers internationally, indigenous groups in South America (“The Other Americas”) and Africa, Rwandans facing genocide, and has also generally covered the overwhelming struggles people face globally. He saw the strife and harshness of society and humanity through all of the subjects he covered; at the end of his project Exodus (resembled in his book Migrations), in which he particularly saw genocide, hunger, high morbidity and child mortality rates, and poverty, he was discouraged and did not know if he could return to his career – what he once thought was his calling – as a social photographer.
In many of Salgado’s photos – portraits especially, there is so much emotion embedded. Through most of my experience watching The Salt of the Earth, I was challenged, moved, and constantly had chills down my spine. It is truly a gift to, in literally every single photograph, make someone think so profoundly and feel such strong emotions – I could see his empathy and connection with every one of his subjects. In his portraits, he really understood the notion of showing someone’s life and sentiments through their eyes. He portrayed a “twinkle” (as Sight & Sound: Filmmaking Professor Boris Frumin calls it) in their eyes that was unmistakably apparent and effective for the viewer. With little context, I was able to feel so strongly for all of his subjects. When he showed the horrible conditions people were facing around the world, I really thought about how the earth and the conditions people face which are often out of their control, can change the lives of people so drastically.
Years later, Salgado found out his father had become ill, and he finally returned to Brazil. While in Brazil, where their land was once a tropical forest, green and lush, it had become barren and rendered useless. Salgado and his wife, Lelia, tried to decide what to do with the land. She suggested that they replant the trees and plants that once covered the land. And for the next ten years, they did exactly that.
Salgado begun to restore the land, unsure of what the outcome would be. They did not have experience planting a tropical forest from the ground up. Lelia said that when she initially made the suggestion, she thought they would plant a few trees on the land; she never imagined that they would replant an entire uninterrupted section of the Atlantic Forest, with millions of trees covering the hill. Salgado viewed this as an example for what could be done around the world in other places where entire forests and tropics have been destroyed. Salgado used himself and his land to show people that in places where the land had become barren and arid, there is hope and the ability to bring back the ecosystem that once prevailed.
Sebastião Salgado became passionate about the environment and wanted to come up with a way to show the world the problem that exists with humanity’s impact on the environment. While many people said he could not do this, as he was a social photographer and this was too different, he was determined to create this new art of his own – focusing on the land around us. In the documentary, he said that he immediately thought of the usual ideas: showing people that they are destroying the earth, and that humanity is taking control of nature, failing to understand that we are part of nature and should respect it. But then he thought he wanted to take a different approach. Salgado wanted to show people the possibility of helping the environment, of recreating an ecosystem, of saving nature and the world in which we are only a small group. He did this through his exhibit and book Genesis, which he worked on for about eight years.
In contrast to many of the documentaries we have watched in and for class, Salgado’s initial outlook was hopeful and positive. I found it inspiring, and realized that if Salgado and his family alone could recreate an entire ecosystem, it is definitely possible for others to follow suit in other places around the world.
What really resonated with me was the fact that Salgado was able to create such vivid stories, and with such respect, for all of his subjects. For the first time, I truly understood how art aside from films and documentaries could be used on such a large scale and so vividly to depict and influence the world around us.
Since replanting a huge portion of the Atlantic Forest, Salgado and his wife have founded Instituto Terra – a nonprofit, nongovernmental environmental organization in the Valley of the River Doce that works to restore the ecosystem, spearhead environmental education outreach and research programs, as well as conduct scientific research. A large portion of the farm Instituto Terra manages has been declared a Private Natural Heritage Reservation.
Salgado now covers not only the untouched and resurrected portions of the earth, but also groups of people who still live as humans lives thousands of years ago. These groups who have lived within and off of the land, and have remained untouched by Western civilization and industrialization.
In a recent interview by Melissa Harris – the editor-in-chief of Aperture – in light of his exhibit (which was put up just before last year’s Climate Week in NYC) at the International Center of Photography , Salgado says:
“Yes, a good half of the planet—where we built our farms, where we built our agriculture—we destroyed. It’s ecologically destroyed. But a good half is there, and we must hold on to this if we want to survive as a species. Because we are not a danger to the planet; we are a danger to ourselves. It will be the end of our species. Because the moment that we go, the planet renews itself in five hundred years or a thousand years. It’s always done that. The forests come back. The planet can renew quite quickly. It’s not that damaging for the planet. It’s damaging for us. If we want to survive as a species, we must change our behavior.”
In many of his works, even those that came before Genesis, we see his sentiment, “We came out of the planet. We must go back to the planet.” In his book Migrations, he shows images of children dying and being buried, often without coffins and in mass burials. Though the images were difficult to look at, it really made me think about the concept that just as we come from the earth, we must return back to it. We are only a speck of dust and a bump in the road for nature; Western civilization continues trying to control and overcome nature, we will always be subjected and merciless to the forces of nature.
Even days later, I am moved by Salgado and still processing all that he has to say about the world, nature, and the people around us. I can go on for a long time about what he has to say and represents, but it would probably be much easier if you all just went to see the documentary…which you should definitely do!