Wim Wenders' documentary The Salt of the Earth follows the storied career of Brazilian photo-documentarian Sebastião Salgado, who produced some of the most iconic still images of the '90s, from emaciated children in Ethiopia to oil fires in Kuwait.
Wenders, who co-directs with Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, aims to craft an intimate yet sweeping portrait of Salgado's life and work through a retrospective look at 40 years' worth of photographs. The cinematography by Hugo Barbier presents hyper-saturated, silvery versions of Salgado's work, exquisitely printed to bring out expertly captured details.
With the focus on craftsmanship, you can almost forget that most of the photos show the ravages of war, drought and famine in the Third World. But should you forget that you are being encouraged to consume the suffering of black and brown bodies? This is a familiar and vexing question. Salgado's brand of photojournalism was already a stand-up comedy punchline in the '90s—"Why don't you give the kid a sandwich instead of taking a picture?"
Wenders is careful to shape Salgado's interviews into a meditation on the human condition palatable for the international art-film market, not a meditation on the destructive effects of globalized capitalism. "Everyone should see these images to see how deadly our species is," Salgado says over one particularly grisly set. Each event that feeds into his illustrious career is, not coincidentally, one of the greatest atrocities of the latter half of the 20th-century. Each is curiously disconnected from the last, presented without historical context.
The closest Salgado comes to speaking about his own politics is when he recounts his first big photo project, The Other Americas, which is about Latin America in the late-'70s and early-'80s. This project returns the Brazilian exile to his native continent while it is in the throes of leftist revolt. Here, Salgado's photos articulate an impassioned entanglement with his subject matter. He shows communities surviving under economic duress and transforming through self-determination. But his later work in Africa and in the Middle East is simply misery porn.
Films like The Salt of the Earth are where the politics of a genre that self-consciously calls itself "international art cinema" (with Wenders as its middling king) meet the entrenched logic of colonialism: The world out there is a resource, ready to be mined and consumed by the First World, at a safe distance.