Questions of Genius: On “Salt of the Earth”

By Ilana SichelMay 8, 2015

Questions of Genius: On “Salt of the Earth”

SALT OF THE EARTH, the new film about the great photographer Sebastião Salgado, raises uncomfortable questions about men, women, and that frightful designation “genius.” Why is recognized genius so often male, while its enablers and cultivators so reliably female? How do we expect a man to negotiate the dueling pulls to travel for his art, on the one hand, and to stay home with his wife and children (one of whom has Down syndrome), on the other? When the man is portrayed as having chosen adventure, how do we appraise that choice? Does it — and should it — influence our feelings about his art?

Rather than build a film around these questions, Salt of the Earth — which is codirected by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s older son, Juliano Ribeiro — is designed to deny their relevance. The film is a paean to Salgado’s remarkable eye and his sense of moral implication in the 20th century’s humanitarian disasters. Told through a prism of narrators — Wenders, Juliano, and Salgado himself — the film attempts to create an intimate sense of a man who attempted to create an intimate sense of the world. But it only succeeds in creating a hagiographic tribute that flattens both the artist and the emotional and intellectual context of his art.

The film’s visual scape alternates between a highly stylized study of Salgado’s talking face against a black backdrop, a dramatic silver gelatin effect sometimes superimposed on the images he reflects upon. The lighting and presentation are suitable for a prophet. We watch the photographer squint, clear his throat, equivocate, and philosophize, as he gazes at some of his iconic photographs: laborers glistening in a Brazilian gold mine, three starving babies wrapped in a blanket in Ethiopia, a mother and children trekking through the Malian desert. His reflections on greed, starvation, and genocide are stirring, incisive. “We humans are terrible animals,” he laments. At that point in the film we’ve seen enough of his breathtaking photographs to agree.

From a humanitarian perspective, Salgado’s photojournalistic documentation is vitally important to raising awareness and global concern. But the film is not just Saldagon’s photographs on the big screen — it aims to be a portrait of a man. As such, some of its richest resources are the emotions left unspoken, which lurk in an offstage universe in which we can only assume that a father’s prioritizing his work over his wife and children stirs its own human torments. Several photographs attest to this pain: a photo of the younger son, Rodrigo, who has Down syndrome, swinging between his parents’ arms, delighting in the attention; a shot of Juliano as a boy watching his father pore over his photographs upon returning from one of his many trips. “I saw my father as an old-fashioned adventurer” is all he says. We are left to guess at how that might have felt.

One would hope that a film about a famous man by his son would illuminate aspects of the man’s life unseen by the public, but instead of showing a layered portrait of an artist — a portrait that embraces the artist as a man capable of making both good decisions and bad — the emotionality is shunted away. The film feels like an elaborate mask to distract us from the human core on the other side of the camera. In a candid interview with Steve Erickson on, Juliano points to the “tense and difficult relationship” between himself and his father, and describes showing him some raw footage: “When he saw himself the way his son saw him, suddenly that man who barely spoke to me was so touched and had tears in his eyes. That was a healing moment for us and a reassurance that the gaze I had over him was a loving gaze. For me, it was a reassurance that he would accept my presence.” Later, when he showed Salgado the rough cut, Juliano said it was as if, “suddenly, we had become friends. Sometimes you can sort things out by a process like that.”

What riches! What depth! If Juliano was shy about incorporating this deeply personal story into the film, one would hope that a seasoned documentarian like Wenders would insist upon it. But the father-son relationship is not the only opportunity Wenders misses in this film. If the filmmakers made the decision to focus on Salgado’s photography, one would expect a nuanced assessment of that work. Instead, they are utterly in thrall to it.

Salgado’s gorgeous images of great suffering have long been the subject of critical inquiry. As Michael Kimmelman put it in 2001, on the occasion of an exhibition in New York City, “Should pictures of suffering ever be so beautiful?” There are infinite ways to answer the question. Absolutely, for it prompts the viewer to empathize with human suffering. Yes, because the beauty of the image honors the dignity of the depicted individuals. No, for if the subject is despair, the experience of beholding it should not bring pleasure. Maybe, but perhaps a more straightforward depiction, less attuned to composition and aesthetic, would better suit the emotional content.

But Wenders isn’t interested in intellectualizing. As he told StudioDaily: “I thought that’s such an obsolete discussion […]. I think this discussion leads nowhere. I’ve never heard this discussion except as a quote, like you did: ‘some people say …’ I’ve never run into anyone who actually believes it.”

His outright dismissal testifies to the film’s great undoing. Its auteurs’ infatuation with Salgado prevents them from seeing the man and his work for the rich, flawed, human productions that they are. Does Salgado see his wife, Lélia, as marginal to his success, or do only the filmmakers? The woman depicted as Salgado’s beautiful love and tireless advocate makes occasional appearances but never gets her due. We hear that she is the impetus behind the massive Amazonian environmental project they’ve embarked on in recent years, and that she championed his work in the formative stages of her career. So where’s her story? Why isn’t Juliano soliciting it? Why isn’t Wenders? We hear much of Wenders’s narration in the film but are left to rue the absence of Lélia’s, which would surely be illuminating.

The best thing about The Salt of the Earth is the photographs, which, ethical considerations aside, are gripping testaments to humanity’s harshest blows. The next best thing is the questions I wish it had asked. Questions about designated genius and why we bow to it, questions about how that designation creeps into a family and shapes it. Do we hope that praise is somehow reciprocal, and that by offering it, we, too, can bask in its glow? There’s a strange irony in depicting a photographer so riveted by humanity as a prophet unscathed by its practicalities, and a surprising emptiness in walking away from a film about an artist still wondering about the man behind the work.


Ilana Sichel is a writer, translator, and editor living in New York. Follow her @ilanasichel and find her short fiction in Prairie Schooner and Narrative.

LARB Contributor

Ilana Sichel is a writer, translator, and editor living in New York. Follow her @ilanasichel and find her short fiction in Prairie Schooner and Narrative.


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