The Salt of the Earth review: the sky above, the muddy image below

Wim Wenders’s Oscar-nominated study of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado makes for riveting viewing, though larger issues of the artist’s aesthetics are conspicuously absent

The Salt of the Earth
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Director: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado..., Wim Wenders
Cert: G
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Sebastiao Salgado
Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins

Is cinema the right place to learn about photography? The media are so entwined that it feels slightly incestuous to be rooting away at one with the other. Yet, in recent years, a mini-golden age for films on snaps has kicked off. Both Bill Cunningham New York and Finding Vivian Maier came as close to breaking through as documentaries manage these days. The Salt of the Earth, a hit at Cannes and an Oscar nominee, has every chance of replicating that success.

Sebastião Salgado is probably less well known than Wim Wenders, behind the camera with Salgado’s son Juliano for this seductive study. But the Brazilian photographer has made quite some impact on how we see the world. Half a dozen of his images have become as rooted in the zeitgeist as any of Wenders’s distinguished films.

Perhaps the most resonant of Salgado's photographs remain those of the Serra Pelada gold mines in Brazil. Thousands of half-naked men crawl up and down wooden ladders in a vast pit that seems to have been ripped from a grimmer corner of Hieronymus Bosch's brain. So accurately did they summon up older miseries that Penguin used one on the cover for an edition of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.

It is chilling to be reminded that the images were taken as recently as the 1980s. This is how Wenders begins his documentary, and it makes for riveting viewing.


Born into a comfortable farming family, Salgado initially trained as an economist before settling upon a lifelong mission to capture the world’s more startling environments in still images. Often shooting in black and white, in the style of his subject, Wenders introduces us to an intelligent, rigorous man who thinks hard about the structures that impose hardship on the powerless.

What is missing from the film is any serious study of the photographer's aesthetics. Are not the images, as Susan Sontag once suggested, a little too beautiful for their own good? The viewers can ask those questions of themselves. The Salt of the Earth gives us all the materials to ponder, appreciate and celebrate one of the era's singular eyes.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist