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The Salt of the Earth

May 30, 2015

 

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“I looked through a lens and ended up abandoning everything else.” – Sebastião Salgado.

The commitment to chasing the opportunity to do what makes you happy is rare and absent from the DNA of most people.  The motivation to take on risk.  Risk of going broke, risk of being embarrassed, risk of being forced to start over.  Subjecting oneself to these possibilities with the outcome of reaping reward is unlikely.  Against the odds, Sebastião Salgado followed his instinct and found his reward through the lens of a camera.

The Brazilian photojournalist is the subject of a new film, The Salt of the Earth, directed by Wim Wenders with his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, acting as co-director.  Rarely are the stories behind images told, especially while a photographer is still alive.  In Salt of the Earth we are offered a first-hand glimpse into Mr. Salgado’s life, which spans from his native country of Brazil to his adopted home of France and – over a 40 year career – around the globe many times in between.

Trained as an economist, Mr. Salgado’s opinions of the world were forged through this lens while traveling the globe as a consultant, often visiting Africa on behalf of the World Bank.  These experiences would have a large influence on his later work as a photographer.  It wasn’t long before life as an economist grew old and while living in Paris he turned his back on the safety of a career and instead pursued his passion.  Following an investment into expensive camera equipment, Mr. Salgado chased any opportunity that presented itself.  Weddings, portraits, and newspaper work were all fair game as the emerging photographer found his focus.  Within five years he joined the infamous team at Magnum Photos.

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During his time at Magnum (25 years) and his subsequent departure to form his own photo agency (Amazonas Images) in 1994, Salgado would document some of world’s most challenging social issues and atrocities.  War, famine, genocide, and workers in under developed countries were many of his subjects.  Often times telling the stories that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.  Images of mine workers in Brazil (above) are among a series that include some of his most famous photographs.  And while each photo’s subject offered the ability to create an image which evokes strong emotion, the scale and scope of these projects are equally as impressive.  Mr. Salgado’s commitment would usually span years, producing self assigned projects  The Other Americas, Sahel, Workers, and Migrations.  Four years, six years, eight years are durations casually mentioned, leaving anyone to wonder how this could be possible.

Throughout the film, Mr. Salgado’s confident modesty and story telling is addictive.  Over the course of his life and career as a photographer, he has seen and experienced more than most people will in ten lifetimes.  Yet, while having experienced and lived among some of the mankind’s worst horrors for years at a time, he still possess a compassionate optimism.  However, seeing the worst the world had to offer took its toll and caused Mr. Salgado to shift his focus towards work that didn’t involve death.  His latest large-scale project, Genesis, explores uninterrupted nature and remote indigenous tribal communities.  And as with its predecessors, Genesis would take eight years to complete and produce some of his most striking images to date.

On a personal note, this film strikes a chord.  Having also left behind the safety net of a nine-to-five profession to explore what makes me happy, I understand the need for change as well as the impending risk vs. reward.  It’s always motivating to see someone experience success doing what they love and what they’re meant to do.  The Salt of the Earth is the purest expression of this point.  Not only are the images and content truly striking and inspiring (and worth being viewed on the large screen), but the same can be said of the person behind the lens.  Making his point clear, once you find out what it is you need to do, the only thing left is abandoning everything else.

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