How long does it take to plant 2,000,000 trees?
Why would someone give up a safe and lucrative job as an economist with a global institution for the uncertain livelihood of a photographer?
What keeps a person who is steeped in the aftermath of brutal atrocities – and witnesses human savagery up close – sane?
We get an insight into all of these questions in this mesmerising documentary. The range and depth to be found in the experience of the life that Sebastiao Salgado has lived is just hinted at by the variety and profoundness displayed in the previous questions.
Born on a Brazilian farm in Minas Gerais state in 1944, Sebastiao led a conventional life until the age of thirty – earning a Masters in Economics, moving to live in Paris and working on assignment in Africa for the World Bank studying the coffee industry.
He also met and married his wife Lélia Wanick (Salgado) a fellow Brazilian. So far, so usual.
Then one day he picked up a camera Lélia had bought for her studies – and his life changed utterly.
Fascinated and increasingly enthralled, we might even say bewitched, by the world of images, Sebastiao – fully supported by Lélia – made a very radical decision: he gave up his safe, secure and extremely well-paid job as an economist to begin work on a long-term photography project.
If this had failed we might say he was unhinged to take such a step, but with the benefit of hindsight we can say now that it was inspired.
Never an easy path – Sebastiao spent long periods away from his family, which now included children, two boys, along with isolation in remote and difficult, and often dangerous, terrain – his perseverance, dedication and rare talent eventually made Sebastiao one of the world’s most successful photographers.
Ironically, many of his signature photographs came to be taken on the same ground as he had previously trodden as an economist – capturing stills of workers where he had poured over statistics before. Some of his most renowned photos came from coffee plantations; a revolution complete.
This documentary by German film maker Wim Wender (with the help of Sebastiao’s and Lélia’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) delves with empathy and incisiveness into Sebastiao and Lélia’s lives since that momentous change in direction, the highs and the lows, the various projects – including some truly horrendous experiences in Rwanda and Yugoslavia as both were dissolved by the acid of human hate – and their return to Brazil to begin their new project, the Instituto Terra.
If you can see this film, it will be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, tinged with some sadness of course – a bit like life and a fitting testament to a living lens on humanity’s positive and negative elements.