Perhaps it’s just his German accent, but when renowned auteur Wim Wenders’s narration kickstarts his latest endeavour The Salt of the Earth, which he has co-directed alongside the subject’s very own son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, it bears a resemblance to that of Werner Herzog. It’s not just the tonal similarities, but he shares that same sense of profundity and poetic eloquence in his words. The subject, in this instance, is the revered photographer Sebastião Salgado, in what can only be described as an exhibition, as we examine his breathtaking portfolio of work.

In a career spanning across four decades, Salgado has travelled to every corner of the world, studiously casting his eye (and lens) over humanity. Having experienced some of the most disconcerting, heartbreaking events, such as genocide, war and barbaric cruelty amongst man, he is now undertaking a project to capture the more serene, innocent aspects of the world we’ve inhibited, across pristine territories on the hunt for true beauty. Salgado takes us through his career, step by step, in a distinctively personal, candid account.

Nobody understands his photos quite like he does, allowing us a fascinatingly unique interpretation of them, and a wonderful sense of context, as he provides anecdotes that embellish these breathtaking pictures. Though marvelling at Salgado’s abilities to capture the true essence of a moment, we don’t shy away from his flaws either, never overly eulogising his work. Instead we have an authentic depiction, enhanced by the fact he’s now working alongside his son, while divulging various intimate accounts of his marriage and somewhat dysfunctional home life (he was rarely there). This all paints such a broad picture of his life which helps the viewer understand who he is, which is essential as Salgado puts so much of himself into his work that if we are able to understand him, we can understand the photographs.

To help maintain this connection between the viewer and subject, Salgado’s talking head interviews, like his photographs, remain in monochrome, allowing for a consistent tone, while his face often fades into the background of his own pictures, putting him at the heart of the action. We also see him at work today. Such a perfectionist, a master. Nonetheless, The Salt of the Earth is by no means an easy watch, as we witness a series of truly, incomprehensibly upsetting images. To see these brutal, tragic moments – such as recently deceased infants – makes for a moving, challenging experience.

Right off the bat we begin with the less positive side to the human psyche, studying the greed of man as Salgado’s first collection shared is that of men hunting desperately for gold. We then go back to basics somewhat, visiting tribes and tranquil environments, retreating back to a more simplistic way of life – a stark contrast to the gold digging that preceded it. But from there we move on to death, disease and unforgiving poverty. We take a dark turn, and see all stages on mankind; the ineffably beautiful to the unbearably destructive, and sadly, in this instance, we deal more predominantly in the latter.

Again, that’s somewhat emblematic of our subject, as an entry point who has lost complete faith in humanity. He went to the heart of darkness, and now he’s taking us with him. But there’s a serenity to his pictures, something almost peaceful, and we proceed into a more uplifting theme, of people replanting a rainforest. We see the positive side to mankind too and the absolute innocence of nature, as the barbarity goes hand in hand with the beauty, and in some ways you need the former to appreciate the latter.

This picture has a real linearity to it too and maintains a palpable narrative structure throughout, which is certainly thanks to having Wenders at the helm. Essentially, he is a storyteller, and that is essential in forming a documentary that is both immersive and totally compelling.