Salgado: the photographer who caught man’s essence

The Salt of the Earth” is a documentary film that we watched for our A.S.L. project on “Green Jobs” last year. This documentary, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, deals with the works and life of Sebastião Salgado, a great Brazilian photographer, well-known for his worldwide famous projects.
We were deeply impressed by the way Salgado’s succeeded in creating a special dialogue firstly between him and the subject of his photos, then between the subject and the viewer: he proposed a modern interpretation of Donne’s teaching “no man is an island, but a piece of the continent”. Salgado’s photography tends to create a community and overcome the barriers between us and the other: he suggests our belonging to the same species.
The same happens with nature: we form a community with it, we belong to the same planet and can’t destroy it. Therefore, Salgado showed that it is possible to live in “communion” with nature. Indeed, his favourite subjects are those who live in pristine places, because he would like Western Countries to learn from these populations that we can live as a community with nature and with each other.
The expression “ the salt of the earth” is in fact a biblical quotation with multiple meanings, which recalls the role of the man in his giving “flavour” to the earthly existence, his ability to make sense, to interpret and unify all existing things. (“I knew something of this Sebastião Salgado, he really cared for humans. After all, they are the salt of the earth”- Wim Wenders, a quotation from the documentary prologue). In his projects he seems to question man, showing his weakness, his selfishness, greed, thirst for power and money, which resulted in migrations, harsh working conditions, wars, poverty, the catastrophic consequences that some economic and political decisions had on masses of people considered marginal. Where is humanity going? Is this man’s true nature? Humans mustn’t forget their natural essence: indeed they’re the salt of the earth. How can they be like that if they don’t respect nature? What’s the purpose of salt if it is deprived of its flavour?
Man will destroy his home, that is the planet, and himself unless he changes his behaviour!
Salgado teaches us that we have to be at one with other creatures and the environment in order to form a community. As the philosopher Heidegger said in “A letter on Humanism”, man has to be the shepherd (and not the lord) of Being. This is why he has to treat everyone and everything fairly and respectfully: this is the only way to preserve mankind and continue to give “ flavour” to the earth.

Salgado’s life
Sebastião Salgado was born in 8th February 1944 in a large cattle farm in Aimorés, in Brazil, and into a middle-class family. Firstly, he studied economy and began his career as an economist working for the secretary of finance. Then, he won a scholarship and went to Paris with his girlfriend Lelia to undertake a doctorate. This move was mainly the result of his participation in the students’ protests against Brazil military dictatorship: indeed, his Brazilian passport was revocated while staying in Paris. When Lèlia bought a camera, Salgado discovered his love of photography. Since their second child, Rodrigo, was born with Down’s syndrome, they decided to remain in Paris in order to treat him better. Salgado had such a strong sense of being a community that he learnt how to communicate with his son Rodrigo without using words.

Sections of the film corresponding to Salgado’s photo projects

“Other Americas”
Salgado travelled a lot around the world in order to realize his projects. For example, he visited the countries neighbouring his native Brazil (Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico) to photograph native tribes whose lives were not much touched by the modern world. These photos belong to Salgado’s first project, “Other Americas”, which deals with the contrast between pristine nature and areas spoiled by man. For instance, even his “facenda” (farm) disappeared because of drought, deforestation and climatic changes. In addition, Salgado took a photo of some shops in Northern Brazil where fruits and coffins were sold together. So, we can easily understand how life and death are closely related amongst these Brazilian tribes, whose members are not afraid of dying because death is not an extraordinary event.

Then, Salgado realized his “homage to who made Western countries as the way they are”. This project was called “Workers” and the photos that mostly attracted our attention had been taken in Brazil and in Kuwait. Firstly, Salgado went to the Sierra Pelada mine: today, it doesn’t exist anymore because its pit has been filled with water by the Brazilian government. However, when Salgado went there in 1980, this place was the biggest mine in the world. He saw an anthill of 100,000 diggers (“garimpeiros”) scratching through the bottom of the open pit in search of gold: in addition, they had to carry on their shoulders heavy sacks containing ore up the pity walls. They were paid 20 cents to dig and carry the sacks, plus a bonus if they found any gold. Salgado suggests when man sees gold, he’s lost: even if the diggers of Sierra Pelada worked in such dreadful conditions, they were attached to money. Man as a category tends to wealth, but we shouldn’t forget that “who begins to manipulate gold never recovers”. Later on (1991), Salgado went to Kuwait, where the Gulf War had just finished. Sadam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, had invaded Kuwait to control the oil wells because Kuwait’s oil supremacy was ruining the Iraqi economy. Since he also got the political control of the country, the Allied Forces (ONU) decided to force Hussein to leave Kuwait: before their arrival, Sadam Hussein ordered to set fire to the oil wells while retreating from the country. Salgado took incredible shots of two Canadian firefighters completely covered in oil: while trying to put the fire out, they were crying because of the terrible working conditions (the air was polluted, there was no light because of the smoke and the temperature was extremely hot). So, Salgado poses a question: is it fair to risk workers’ life to remedy man’s own mistakes?

“Sahel: the end of the road”
The theme of the terrible conditions in which men live is focused in “Sahel: the end of the road”. Salgado went to the camps of the Ethiopian refugees who had left their country because cholera, famine, dehydration and drought had made their lives intolerable. Salgado thought that these problems depended on the question of sharing natural resources, on unequal distribution of wealth and on climatic changes, caused by a false idea of progress. Still today, natural resources of Congo are exploited and used to satisfy the needs of Western countries.

Africa is also the setting of a section of a project “Exodus” devoted to the Rwandan genocide. The title of the whole project is a metaphor: exodus is man’s exodus from the Earth (so, death), which is caused by himself.

“Instituto Terra”

“After having seen into the Heart of Darkness”, as Wender said in the film, Salgado returned to Brazil. Wender’s words are an evident reference to Conrad’s famous novel, which deals with a record of Congolese people’s exploitation by the Belgian colonists. After the events of Rwanda, Salgado lost his faith in humanity: he understood that man is the result of a long process of evolution and adaptation to nature, which implied its manipulation and the advent of the so called progress or civilization. But was all this process towards civilization worth it? Or rather is it responsible for what makes us so violent, aggressive and greedy, rational and irrational at the same time?
An answer is provided through the work of the “Instituto Terra”, a non-profit organization founded by Lèlia and Sebastião: they recreated a forest with species that had flourished once. “Instituto Terra” is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education: in addition, it seems to investigate the limits of the “human action” in relation to the “being” of the animals. What are the differences between men and animals? Men are beings of the praxis. They are the beings of the “what to do”, while animals are beings of pure “to do”. Animals do not “see” the world. They are immersed in it. Men, on the contrary, as beings of the “what to do”, emerge and, by objectifying the world, can know and transform it with their work. Men are beings of the “what to do”, because their “doing” is action and reflection. Unlike animals, we’re not led only by instinct, because we are allowed to make choices using our intelligence.
As Salgado understood, the value of environmental education is fundamental. Indeed, Pope Francis held that environmental education seeks to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, by establishing harmony within ourselves, with the other, with nature and other living creatures and, finally, with God. So, this kind of education should facilitate making the “leap towards the trascendent” which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning.


Salgado’s opus maius and last project is “Genesis”. It is conceived by the photographer as a potential path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature. The title means: “Let’s start again”: it is a warning of what we risk losing, like a blessing to our guilty soul. What’s more, it is a love letter to our planet, the only heritage we have. This is why Salgado went to the most pristine places in the earth. Indeed he said that half of our planet is still like it was on the day of Genesis and we should take care to preserve it while restoring the other half we are losing . To highlight these places in his photos, Sebastião used the black and white technique, because it is the one that lets you catch the true essence of reality. Therefore, “Genesis” is a timeless document. In addiction, Salgado shows the origins of every living being (he even said that “we all come from the same cell”). His final aim is to warn society to change its course and, to do this, he showed pristine nature and examples of communities of animals and human beings ( elephant seals in South Georgia, thousands of penguins on Zavodovski Island, the Nenets in Siberia). What do they have in common? Salgado thinks that what makes us similar to animals is the feeling of belonging to a community. We mustn’t look at these natives as uncivilized tribes: indeed, western civilization, our own civilization, has often turned out to mean putting in danger nature and the human race.
“Genesis” main theme is the relationship between nature and culture, man and civilization. Therefore, the most important question that Salgado poses is: what’s man’s role? He belongs to nature, which bore him, but he has a right to civilization, because he is the salt of the earth, its soul.
Everyone should take a pause from our fast, comfortable lives and try to answer this question, because Salgado’s teachings are extremely important for the comprehension of our Dasein, our being on the Earth.

Alessandra Lombardi IV E
Valentino Lombardi IV E