‘Salt of the Earth’: Powerful life lessons from photographer Sebastiao Salgado


Chris Nichols looks at what celebrated social photographer Sebastiao Salgado can teach us about work and purpose.

Even if we don’t know the name Sebastiao Salgado, we have seen his pictures. Salgado has spent his life documenting the human species, often in our most desperate conditions. Recently an award-winning film, ‘The Salt of the Earth’, was made by Salgado’s son Juliano and fellow director, Wim Wenders. The film provides a powerful account of Salgado’s four decades of work.


I was moved deeply, of course, by his stunning images. But even more, I was struck by the way his life speaks to all of us with a passion for human and planetary transformation about what it takes to do Work that has the power to transform.

I use the word Work (with a capital W) deliberately: it’s not just a job, it’s Work like “oeuvre”, a coherent body of activity, action taken with a purpose. I think Salgado’s Work tells all of us a great deal about just what it takes to create an impact of this kind in the world.

I’ve been noticing what his life and Work tells me about doing my own Work.


The first thing I noticed was time – Salgado put astonishing amounts of time into his projects. In a world where we so often seek quick results, his projects spanned months, and in many cases, years. His project ‘The Other Americas’ involved fieldwork across Latin America from 1977-1986. ‘Workers’, his pictorial exploration of manual work involved 23 countries between the years 1986-1992. ‘Genesis’, his landscape project, took from 2004 until 2013. This speaks of a contribution on a monumental scale. Sometimes valuable Work is not quick, it may not have payback on a timescale to feed your balanced scorecard this quarter.


Next I noticed the sacrifice and risk inherent in the Work. Salgado didn’t do a desk job. This was work deep in the field for months on end, often in the most dangerous situations. Deep in war zones, treading a path alongside the displaced migrants and refugees, Salgado’s efforts involved personal risk.

It also took him away from home and his growing family for huge periods of time. It reminded me that Work can be costly.


What made this possible was that Salgado’s wife, Lelia, was his co- adventurer in the Work. Together the couple founded Amazonas Images to earn a living from the images through publication and exhibition. Although it is Sebastiao’s name on the photographs, it was evident in the film just how much of a collaborative effort this Work involved. It spoke to me of the importance of collaboration and teams. As Joanna Macy, the legendary Buddhist scholar- activist says: “Don’t do this work alone”.


The Work took Salgado to the very depths of despair. Witnessing famine and exodus, working alongside humanitarian missions and “Medicins san Frontieres”, Salgado witnessed humanity’s lowest spots. “We are a ferocious animal…we are a terrible animal”, he wrote, “an endless story of war and madness”. His Work destroyed his faith in humanity – he quit, and went home to his family farm in Brazil, which had itself become barren through drought and intensive cattle farming. Doing your Work can batter your beliefs and your optimism.


But here the Work took an amazing turn. Salgado and Leilia got their hands into the dirt, replanting the farm with millions of trees. The story of the regeneration of that piece of land is itself the stuff of the miraculous. Over a 15 year period the land was transformed from a barren cattle ranch to flourishing rainforest. Today it is The Instituto Terra. Participating in this effort restored Salgado and brought new love and life to his Work. Sometimes you have to go home and get closer to the living earth to feed your Work.


Building on the inspiration he got from the rebirth of this landscape, Salgado launched into his next project, Genesis, which took from 2004-2013. This was a global photographic love poem to the natural living world, and became both a global touring exhibition and a book. His aim: “I just want people to feel closer to our planet. We are all so out of touch. We don’t feel part of the planet anymore, so we must turn back…closer to nature.” Sometimes the Work moves: this time from human life, to Life.


The ‘Salt of the Earth’ and the Work of Salgado contain an inspiring story for all of us who are working to create more compassionate and earth-intelligent ways of living. It’s often not about an easy road or predictable quick results. The Work is often hard, and requires the support of others. It may take us to places we didn’t want to go. Sometimes we have to step back and work on our own restoration before we can carry on. And sometimes all of this is what it takes to bring about transformation.

‘The Salt of the Earth’ is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.



Photo credit: cactusbeetroot from Flickr