With deep empathy for the human condition, Sebastião Salgado’s photographs directly confront injustice, inhumanity and horror, while capturing the dignity within every subject. In multi-year, globe-spanning projects such as Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age, Sahel: The End of the Road, Migrations, and Genesis. Salgado’s stunning black-and-white compositions chronicle the lives of forgotten people—rendering them unforgettable.
Born in the Brazilian mining state of Minas Gerais and trained as an economist, Salgado moved to France in 1969 after Brazil’s military coup, and in the early ‘70s, in close collaboration with his wife Léila Wanick (then an architect), set up a home and studio in Paris to focus on photography. Devoting decades of his life to documenting the world’s darkest corners—among them the unspeakable horrors of the Rwandan genocide—left him deeply traumatized, and he decided not continue capturing such unimaginable horror. He couldn’t. In 1990, he returned from exile to the desiccated remains of his family’s formerly verdant farm, where his wife Léila said, “Let’s plant a few trees.” The ‘few’ trees became over a million through an experimental program of replanting. Their technique proved so successful that the project, called “Instituto Terra,” has now reforested parts of Brazil’s Atlantic (Mata Atlântica) rainforest and is a model for similar efforts worldwide.
Refugee camp in Rwanda
Having collected Salgado’s photographs since the 1980s, German filmmaker Wim Wenders already knew that this Salgado really cared about people; what he didn’t know was that he was going to discover much more than just a photographer. His latest film, The Salt of the Earth (Le Sel de la terre), co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado(Sebastião’s son), is a fascinating amalgam of insider and outsider perspective on the Salgado family’s story. “Salt,” which earned a 2015 Oscar-nomination for Best Documentary Feature (Wender’s third, following Pina in 2011, and Buena Vista Social Clubin 1999) is a stunning visual odyssey through Sebastião’s career.
Dinka group of Pagarau cattle camp, South Sudan, Africa 2006
For the past decade, Salgado has moved on to take pictures of pristine territories, our planet as it was created, hence the project’s name “Genesis”. His hope is that these images of absolute peace will help counter-balance the onslaught of negative imagery that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Lélia, the curator of the exhibit says that “Genesis is a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being”.
Wenders, who received Miami International Film Festival’s Career Achievement Tribute in 2006, created a clever, cinematic way of filming Sebastião discussing his work in The Salt of the Earth. By projecting the master’s photographs onto a semi-transparent mirror, he allows audiences to see both image and man. In this manner, Wenders elicits memories of various monumental projects, turning ordinary talking-head visuals into emotion-filled interactivity. Following its Florida premiere at #MiamiFF32 last month, The Salt of the Earth makes its commercial debut on Friday, April 17 at MDC’s Tower Theater. —Tatyana Chiocchetti