Sebastião Salgado: Brazil’s Greatest Photographer

A couple days ago I girl I know here in Rio suggested that we go see a movie in Botafogo.  “Trust me,” she said.  “You’ll like it.  It’s a good documentary.”  So I surrendered to the inevitable and agreed.  I had no expectations, and knew nothing about the subject matter.  And it was a great film.

The movie was The Salt of the Earth, a film about the life of Brazil’s most noted photographer, Sebastião Salgado.  It was directed by Wim Wenders with the assistance of Salgado’s son Julian.  You may have heard of this photographer.  I had not.  I should mention that it was amusing to me to watch this film in Brazil.  Most of the interviews were conducted in French, and the film was subtitled in Portuguese.  Since I do not know French, I was forced to read the subtitles along with everyone else in the theater.

He was born in Minas Gerais, Brazil in 1944 of a middle-class family.  He studied economics at the University of Sao Paulo, and began work soon after in international organizations like the International Coffee Organization and the World Bank.  These jobs gave him the opportunity to travel widely, especially to Africa; and it was at this time that he discovered he had a talent for documenting emotions and moods through photographs.  Brazil in the late 1960s was governed by its military.  It was a time of turbulence and ferment.  Many intellectuals, artists, writers, and political opposition figures found it prudent to leave the country and seek careers abroad.

To be forced to leave one’s homeland is not a pleasant thing.  But Salgado had the good sense to realize that his opportunities in Brazil would be severely restricted.  To stay would have been to surrender to stagnation and a wasted life.  So he left.  Salgado got married around this time and made Europe his home base.  It was at this point in his life that Salgado made a radical decision.  He had been trained as an economist, and seemed set for a comfortable, office-type career as a useless functionary, laborious and unknown.  But he decided to go a different route.

For reasons that he does not fully explain in his film interviews, Salgado suddenly quit his job in 1973.  Perhaps the burden of witnessing so much life, death, and suffering finally wore on him.  Perhaps his sympathies with the downtrodden of the world needed to find a greater expression than what could be offered by the World Bank.  Or perhaps he was haunted by the realization that the World Bank does little or nothing to alleviate the sufferings of the average citizen.

Regardless of the reason, it was the critical decision of his life.  This, to me, was what made him great:  the ability to plunge into the unknown, into a career he knew nothing about, with only his passion as his guide.  But this is the true stuff of greatness.  Faith alone saves.

He first took small news assignments, perhaps to get a feeling for the job and to build up a network of contacts.  He then embarked on full-time work of his own choosing.  His method was to assign to himself a general theme (e.g., the world’s ecosystems, the coffee laborers of the world, etc.), and then travel the world to document this theme in photographs.  He would then publish these in his books, eventually through an agency he himself founded, called Amazonas Images.

His wife, Leila, took on the role of assistant, sifting through the thousands of photos he produced and choosing the ones that best assimilated to his themes.  It was a partnership based on love, necessity, and mutual respect.

Clearly, he recognized his talents and knew that forming his own company would permit him the fullest expression of his vision.  It must have been a hard road at first.  I was impressed by the fact that his wife was able to tolerate his long absences, perhaps for months on end, while she took care of their young children alone.  This type of patient fortitude is not commonly found today.

He took on the role of combat photographer eventually, documenting the conflicts in Yugoslavia, the Gulf War of 1991, and Rwanda in the mid-1990s.  The Rwandan genocide, and its spillover wars in the Congo and surrounding nations, affected him deeply.  After this, he would never again insert himself into the madness of war.  He and his wife finally returned to Brazil in the 1990s to take over his family’s farm in Minas Gerais, which had nurtured his imagination in childhood.  Things had changed drastically since then.  The lush forests that had encircled his family’s holdings had been denuded, due to a combination of poor land management, fires, and ill-considered agricultural practices.

And it was here that he had a new vision:  to restore the forest by planting hundreds of thousands of trees.  To some, this idea must have seemed ridiculously impractical.  They must have tried to convince him that he was wasting his money, that things would never work out, and that it would be hopeless.  But where others saw obstacles, Salgado saw only his vision.

He seemed to be guided by this blind faith in himself, some sort of weird inner light.  He always seemed to know the right thing to do.  I wonder if he is a spiritual man.  The same sort of precognition he displayed in getting out of the business of taking photographs in conflict zones.  After a while, and after the Rwanda experience, he said to himself, I’ve had enough.  It’s time for a break.

He knew when to move on.  And sometimes, in life, this is the most precious skill of all.  Some men never learn this lesson.

The restoration was an incredible success; Salgado had the land turned into a public trust called the Instituto Terra.  Environmentalism and conservation work is now his focus, and his projects focus on communities that are trying to preserve their ecosystems for future generations.

In the end, the film is a testimony to the power of vision and dreams.  This was a man who could have played things safe, who could lived a life of boring comfort, ensconced in his World Bank enclave in Europe.  But he saw that there was something more.  He decided that he wanted more out of life.

If there is any lesson that should resonate with us, it is this.


Read More:  Steven Mitchell’s “The Iliad”