The Salt of the Earth/Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

Left to right: Director Wim Wenders, Director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Sebastião Sal-gado Photo by Thierry Pouffary, Courtesy of Thierry Pouffary/Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Director Wim Wenders, Director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Sebastião Salgado
Photo by Thierry Pouffary, Courtesy of Thierry Pouffary/Sony Pictures Classics

Although many people are familiar with Sebastiao Salgado’s incredible body of work documenting migrations, armed conflicts, starvation, and poverty, few realize that the work nearly killed him, in spirit if not in body.  He was, as his son Juliano describes him, a “lost man.” Yet this nadir became a turning point for Sebastiao when he was asked to take over the family farm in Brazil—land that had once been a tropical paradise but had become barren through deforestation. With Lelia, his life partner, by his side, the photographer took on a new goal:  re-creating the forest of his childhood on the now arid land. They planted over 300 species of trees, and, miraculously, their efforts took. Sebastiao and Lelia designated the newly flourishing rivers and hills a national park and called it Instituto Terra.

In the process, Salgado the photographer was rejuvenated.  He began work on Genesis, an eight-year magnum opus documenting the incredible beauty of the planet, rather than its tragedies.  Along the way, he asked film directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, his son, to accompany him on some of his Genesis trips.  From these journeys, Salt of the Earth was born.  The film joins Juliano’s Genesis footage with interviews Wenders conducted with Salgado in a dark room, through a two-way mirror, as the photographer analyzes his own work.  Click here for the trailer. Availability:  Now playing nationwide.  Click here for local listings.  Thanks to Jessica Uzzan, Hook Publicity, for arranging this interview.


DT: As soon as I saw the dark room device in Salt of the Earth, I thought of the two-way mirror in Paris, Texas.


WW:  It is similar, yes.  It’s on the same principle as a two-way mirror, where you can see through from one side and you can’t see through from the other.  The mirror became an electronic screen that was still see-through, so Sebastiao saw only his photographs; he did not see the camera that filmed him, which was the whole purpose.  And I saw only his face; I didn’t see the photograph, but we had a record of which photograph he was looking at so we could superimpose it later.


DT:  So we’re actually watching Sebastiao watching his photographs.


WW:  Watching only his photographs.  He didn’t see anything else.  He didn’t know that by looking at his photographs, he was looking into the camera.  He knew it theoretically, but he didn’t see the camera and he didn’t see me. I was behind the camera, and I was just operating the photographs, and whenever I realized he came to the end of having said enough about this picture, I switched to the next one.


DT: How did you come up with that idea?  It’s astonishing to see in action.


WW:  It’s such a simple idea, and sometimes the simplest things you have to look for the longest.  A lot of people shoot with teleprompters, of course.  Every TV show is shot with a teleprompter, every newscaster uses it.  But we’ve reversed the whole thing. I came to it by default. I shot with Sebastiao in a conventional, classic way. For weeks we went through his entire body of work, sitting together at a table or standing at a wall looking at all his books and all his photographs. There were huge stacks of hundreds of photographs, and we went through the entire work, from his first mission and trip, to Genesis. We had two cameras. One camera was on the photographs and one camera was on him and me, so it was very conventional. I got to know his biography and his passage through the four, five big projects of his life.

At the end, when the producer thought, Now we have it all in the can, Wim talked about every picture and now they should be finished, I realized this was only the beginning. I told the producer, I’m sorry, now we have to start from scratch because none of this is good. Every day that we shot, I realized more and more that only every now and then I had something I was really happy with. Sebastiao is a relatively self-conscious person in front of a camera. When he was looking at the photographs, once in a while he got involved and the memories came back, and he concentrated as long as he was looking at the picture.  Then he would look up at me, and there was the camera and the sound engineer, and he started to perform.  He told the story to me, but he was no longer in the memory. There was a difference to the quality of his stories when he forgot that we were there, but as soon as he remembered we were there, it became stiff. Eventually I thought, I want him to be able to just be like that and never see the cameras and forget that I am there and that I’m asking questions, but I didn’t know if there was a way to do it.  And one night I had this idea—put him in a dark room so he doesn’t see anything but his own photographs. Then it dawned on me that the two-way mirror was the solution.  The two-way mirror that you can project something onto as a teleprompter.


DT:  It was so brilliant.


WW:  But it’s a simple idea, and from now on it can be used for lots of documentaries.  Sometimes the simplest ideas need to be invented from scratch.   Errol Morris has a similar invention where people can look at him directly. It’s different—it also uses a mirror, but in a different way.


DT:  You’re a photographer as well as a filmmaker, and you frequently play with the differences between black-and-white and color.  Sebastiao’s photographs, of course, are all black-and-white.  Can you talk about your use of black-and-white and color in this film?


WW:  I was going to mainly concentrate on talking about his work, and my part of the film was to establish his passage through his journeys and how he became a photographer and evolved as a photographer. As Sebastiao only shot black-and-white, I had my mind set from the beginning that I was going to film him in black-and-white because I didn’t want to cut back to a black-and-white picture [from color]. From the beginning Juliano was shooting these journeys in color, but in the end we weren’t so methodical about it, because slowly, in the course of all these talks and interviews, it dawned on me that there was a whole different life that Sebastiao and the family had. They started to talk amongst themselves about Brazil and the forest, and I slowly realized that there was something else to discover, not just the photography. Eventually he insisted that I go with him the next time he went to the Instituto Terra, and then I discovered really what had saved him as a person; his forest and nature had really saved him from the big hole he had fallen into in his life. I realized that what I shot with him in the forest and the whole last chapter of the film about the reforestation project didn’t quite make sense to stick to black-and-white because the glory of the forest was so much nicer in color.  We weren’t rigid with the idea, so I shot also in color in Brazil.


Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics


DT:  In your own films, especially Wings of Desire, what do you see as the major difference between black-and-white and color?


WW:  In Wings of Desire, black-and-white was to represent the angels’ point of view on us. Black-and-white seemed to be such an ideal medium, because it sees the essence of things and reduces things more to what they really are and not what they appear…there’s a little edge of X-rays in a black-and-white photograph.  It looks through things. You see less the surface but more of the soul of people and the essence of things. And it’s immediately linked to memory and…I have no bettter word than essence.  Immediately the little abstraction that black-and-white brings to the representation of a place or person makes you feel you’re looking into the heart of that person. I don’t know what it is.

In Wings of Desire, it seemed to me at the time that the angels would only see us in black-and-white because they’re not interested in the surface, they’re interested in who we really are.  And then of course it was fun to think that Damiel would finally discover colors when he became a human being but wouldn’t even know what the names for all these colors were. Taste and color were things the angels could not possibly know, because those things were too human or too worldly.  You needed to be a person of real flesh and blood in order to be able to know what blood would taste like. So it was a little abstract as an idea in the beginning, but it worked well in the course of the film.

Of course my DOP, Henri Alekan, was so much the grand old master of black-and white movies that I don’t think he would have even wanted to shoot the film in color.  He came back out of his retirement to do the film.  He had already retired for several years, but I knew nobody else could give me that sort of black-and-white. It was only when I told him I was going to make this film in black-and-white that he warmed up to the idea to come back out of retirement.


DT: One thing that really struck me about Salgado’s photographs in the Genesis project was the shadows. In Wings of Desire, you have a shot of the angel Cassiel watching a Nick Cave performance. Cassiel is standing against the wall, and his shadow is pulsing behind him. The same way that you talked about black-and-white, can you talk about shadow in both photography and cinema.


Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics


WW:  There is something so strangely transcendent about the nature of a shadow.  In a very simple and obvious way, a shadow talks about time and talks about mortality. It is almost the symbol of who we are because we also are shadows, and in the end of our lives we only were our shadow, so to speak, so there is something transcendent about the idea of a shadow.  And the shadow in black-and-white is a different thing than in color.  In color, it is almost negligible because it is so much a part of the surface. The shadows we cast in color have never impressed me so much, but the shadows we cast in black-and-white are powerful, and they are so much better decipherable, and they are such clearer witnesses of our mortality, more than anything else.

Of course Wings of Desire is a film about life and death in many ways, and it is a film about our souls—these angel characters are, in a strange way, only better people, or the people we would like to aspire to be, the children we once had in ourselves or we once were, so all of it is so much clearer in black-and-white and shadow.  Even the angels cast shadows, because we couldn’t help it. Henri and I talked at length—could we eliminate those shadows? Could we possibly have the angels not cast shadows?  And Henri thought about it for a while and said, “This is going to be very complicated.”  And I said, “OK, forget it.”


DT:  How has Sebastiao influenced your filmmaking?


WW:  One thing has deeply impressed me, and I think I’m no longer the same filmmaker because of that:  It is the enormous immersement in his work and the way he dedicates so much more time to each of his photographs than other photographers do.  And the way he takes his time.  He goes to the Zo’é or the Papuan people, and he’s not going there for a day or two like most other photographers would.  He stays for two months, and he really becomes friends, and then he returns because he feels he has made friends and he would disappoint them if he didn’t come back. He builds relationships, and I realized that in order for me to have a right to talk about this man, I spent three years instead of three months. I needed three years in order to be able to enter his realm, so to speak.  I couldn’t just shoot a few interviews and walk away. I needed to spend as much time as he did.




DT:  In putting the film together, there were actually four factors that had to be considered—your footage, the material Wim shot in the dark room, the Instituto Terra material, and Sebastiao’s photographs.  How did you come up with a spine to hold it all together?


JRS:  For me, it was very, very clear from the beginning.  In 2009, Wim shows up in our lives. He wants to meet Sebastiao and do something with Sebastiao, but it’s not clear what, when, how.  We started chatting, and at some point we both had the same intuition that Sebastiao’s stories—his experiences of the world—had to be the key. They were something that went far beyond the photographs. There was much more to learn than what everyone had seen already, which were the books and the exhibitions, so it was clear that was the core of our film. It had to be the core of any film about Sebastiao, and I couldn’t do anything other than that.

Wim jumped on board when we found there was a dramatic structure—an arc to it, which was the young Sebastiao learning how to confront the world, finding a way to place his camera that could serve as a microphone to people, the premises of the way that he started dealing with photography and how to bring other people’s lives into the realm of what today we call communication but at the time was the press. Then how he developed into finding a purpose for his photography, and Ethiopia, and how this brought him to a personal breakdown because he went too far—you saw the movie, you know what I’m talking about. This had to be the core of the film.


Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

Photo by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics


The photographs were always going to be part of the subjectivity that we wanted to put in, so we had Sebastiao’s stories and the photography, then Wim found this way of filming in the dark room, which was so powerful—that’s the nice thing about working with such a great master of cinema as Wim.

At some point we thought we might do two movies.  Wim and I had a very difficult time editing, a lot of ego involved, a lot of disagreement on small things that were small things but for us at the time meant we couldn’t really be sitting together in the editing room doing this film together. Then at some point we realized we had to, because none of us were managing to edit the footage in a way that was living up to the importance of what Sebastiao had to say, and also the exemplarity of the trajectory.


DT:  You were really dealing with three visual sensibilities—your own, Wim’s, and Sebastiao’s.


JRS:  True.


DT:  Was that  part of the difficulty?


JRS:  No, that wasn’t.  That was difficult, of course, to put together, but what was really difficult was that Sebastiao’s take on life, on humanity, was very, very powerful. At first our plan was to insert many other things in those stories—other interviews—but that didn’t work, because what Sebastiao has to say is so essential. By half an hour in, he starts speaking about Ethiopia, and then he’s there on his own until the end of the movie almost up to the point we get to the Terra Institute. Wim comes back with his voiceover, but it’s just a way of getting the story to advance; it’s Sebastiao’s voice that’s there.

So the big challenge actually was not how to get our three voices or our three points of view or all of our visions together—it was how to make Sebastiao enough of a character, as far as a film is concerned. When Sebastiao starts speaking about the essential things about life—how people in Ethiopia behave when they’re confronted with such a terrible thing as death, how it’s hard but sometimes it’s beautiful and gives you a sense of hope that humanity can be as strong as it is in those moments—how could we actually make Sebastiao enough of a character so that when the audience gets to this point, he exists in a way that allows you to accept what he has to say? So this is the work we had to do. We didn’t know that, but we found out later that that was the real challenge of the film.


DT:  That’s fascinating.


JRS:  And then, finally, when we actually sat down in the editing room and started working together for real, after a year of fighting, sheer fighting, I had to make Wim a mate from film school, not the famous master.


DT:  Of course.  How could you work together otherwise?


JRS:  Exactly.  It was impossible.  I think that was very unusual for him, so it wasn’t easy, but at some point we both realized that the only way to do it was to sit in the editing room together and work on this thing together. Then, finally, we got back to our starting positions—Wim, the friend, the admirer, the man who was interested in Sebastiao’s work, and me, the son who had lived the story from the inside.  And actually that’s what it is—it’s the same story but through these two different points of view, and that is what has allowed Sebastiao to exist in a way that’s deep and full, enough to allow us as an audience to accept the terrible things he has to say.


DT:  At some point in Genesis Sebastiao switched from film to digital.  Why did he do that?  What did it mean?  What did it entail?


JRS:  He did it for practical reasons.  At that point Sebastiao was traveling with very, very heavy gear.  It was difficult to move around. Before that he was shooting 35mm, but at some point he moved to a much larger format.  The equipment was much heavier, so for the first time he had to have an assistant help him carry the stuff.  But also after 9/11 airport security got much tighter; you had to arrive at the airport five hours before your flight to make sure they wouldn’t put your film stock into those X-ray chambers. The film stock started to get worse, and they stopped producing the paper that he used, so he had to buy whatever stock he found in India and everywhere to be able to keep working. That was the end of it.

So he had to start finding a solution. I think that was in 2006 or 2008. They did a lot of tests with digital, and funnily enough, they realized the quality was better.


DT:  Than what he was getting from film at that point?


JRS:  Yes, the quality was better, so in order to mingle it with what he had been doing, they had to take quality away. This was reassuring, but Sebastiao is hyperprofessional—he was already Sebastiao Salgado at the time, he had a name for himself and some leverage, so he got a team of four people working for months on how to process the digital in a way that made it exactly the same as what he had always been doing with analog. When he shoots now, he has this camera that shows a photo in the back, but it’s all black-and-white, and for him it hasn’t changed anything.  He even has contact sheets the way he had before, and when he has a photo that he likes that’s going into the art market, they do a negative with this digital thing and print it on paper.  So for him, it hasn’t changed much.


DT:  Just the capture has changed.


JRS:  Absolutely, and the practicality of it.  There’s no film to carry anymore, just a box of cards.


DT: What did you learn from your father, both positively and negatively?


JRS:  The positive thing is adaptation.  I was very young when we first traveled together.  I was 15, and he brought me to India and Rwanda. And there he taught me how to travel. He taught me that when you’re traveling somewhere with your camera—he had a still camera, but it’s exactly the same way as with a movie camera—and you’re going places and meeting people you don’t know, the first thing you have to do to make a connection with them is to start explaining what you’re doing and why you came there and what you’re looking for. Then you start exchanging with them. This has two purposes, really. The first is that you can reassess your judgment in a story, because their point of view is necessarily different from yours and there’s a lot to learn from it.  And also from this point, you start creating a bonding and a relation, and when you go to dangerous places by yourself, those relations are what’s going to make it possible to travel and stay longer.  You need to be part of the community.  But this is how it starts—explaining why you are there.  What you’re doing.  And it’s a very humbling situation as well, because of course they know more about the subject.  They live it.  But it’s an important one.

The negative one, I don’t know actually. It’s difficult to say.  What’s the bad thing I learned from my dad?  He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t take drugs, I didn’t learn that from him.  What else?  Maybe it would be family-related things.  He traveled a lot, he had a purpose to do so, and while it’s very nice he did those amazing things and learned so much about people and humanity in a large sense of the meaning, on the other hand, we stayed home and we missed him.  And in some ways for us that was bad.


DT:  It seems to me that the reforestation work at Instituto Terra was not really a divergence from photography but almost a pathway back into it.  I was wondering if that worked on a subconscious level for him.


JRS:  I agree with you.  I think it was a passage.  I’m not saying he ever really thought he would never photograph again, although he was lost and he didn’t know what he was going to do.  There was a lot of questioning. But this land—his father’s land, the land on which he grew up—was something so essential for him. There were so many memories linked to it, and there’s something really powerful about suddenly being able to renew that.  It’s maybe about growing up and finding a balance.

When Sebastiao did this Genesis project, something about him changed.  It wasn’t only the subject that changed. It was also the fact that he didn’t need a journalistic approach to do things.  He was just trying to share his vision of the world.  That’s really the first time he did that, so in a way, by sharing the vision and by being only on a sensitive level, he was being completely an artist.  He wasn’t doing something that had artistic qualities; the way he did them became artistic.


DT: Did that change him as a person, in his personal relationships?


JRS:  For me, our relationship really changed when we were making the film, so from my perspective it’s difficult to say.


DT:  How did your relationship change while you were working on the film?


JRS:  When we started working on the film, we didn’t really get along well together.  We had this acid relation, and a lot of the time our chats would end up in fights.  Our first trip together was to the Zo’é tribe.  I filmed Sebastiao there without knowing I was going to make a film about him, and when he saw the images in the film, he was very touched. Sebastiao’s a picture guy of course, and he understands very well that when someone is filmed, you actually learn more about the person that’s filming than about the person being filmed.  So when he saw this little short film, he was very touched, and we had a very emotional moment. It also moved me a lot to see that my dad could be so touched just by seeing how I saw him. After that we continued having pretty much the same relationship, but that opened the door for me to do this film.

The idea from the beginning was that we needed someone—I needed someone—to interview Sebastiao. I had this intuition that Sebastiao had more to say than we’d thought: that there was a whole dimension that wasn’t only the photographs; that he could transmit to a much broader audience than just family and friends the stories and the experiences he’d had. But because of the nature of our relationship, I couldn’t ask Sebastiao about these things.  I needed somebody else. At this point Wim was in the picture. He became Sebastiao’s friend. They’re both soccer fans and they always chatted about football, but we’re not speaking about any soccer fan—we’re speaking about Wim Wenders. Then Wim and I chatted, and we realized that we had the same intuition—that Sebastiao was a great storyteller and what he has to say is really important. We agreed that we could make a film together and that Wim would do these interviews, but I was to choose what they would be about because I knew the story really well.

It had to be an arc. We had to understand how young Sebastiao decides to confront photography, how he learns he can travel, how his camera suddenly mediates his relationship with the people he is meeting, his camera being like a microphone. Then he goes to Ethiopia, finds a role for his photos, and goes too far; every step he takes he goes a little bit further, til the moment he goes too far, breaks himself, and has to reinvent himself.  We knew that was the story of the film, and that’s what Wim was going to do when he did his interviews. But when I saw the very first rough cut that was done of those interviews, and I saw Sebastiao saying those things on camera, it was done in such a way—it was so powerful, and Sebastiao had so much to share—that suddenly I realized how much he went through, and something changed.  It was sudden. When I saw that, something changed, and when we met Sebastiao again in Paris, suddenly we were friends.  It’s as simple as that and as immediate.  It was really weird. And I thought, That’s the way you sort things out.


DT:  What role did your mother play in your father’s success?


JRS:  A very important role.  It’s very unfair to Lelia, because in the end, Sebastiao is the one who went to all these places and pressed the button, but Lelia dedicated her life to photography. She took part in the decisions—they decided together that they had to change their lives several times—and she’s the one who helped Sebastiao conceptualize.  She didn’t help—they did it together, which is very different, actually. They conceptualized their projects together, she’s done all the books, she designs the exhibitions, she has a very good and very powerful taste for pictures, and they share a lot in this respect.

The other thing she did was that at some point she accepted that Sebastiao needed to be in those places.  My brother has Down syndrome, as you know.  It wasn’t easy every day, especially when he was small. The workload was massive, but she always supported the fact that Sebastiao needed to travel and needed to be in these places. That was so important for him.  She deserves a lot in this success in the very fact that those photos are there, those stories are there, because she was a big, big part of it.


DT:  I don’t know if this is your natural inclination or if you got it from your father’s example, but you like to shoot stories in far-away countries.Why not choose stories that are close at hand?


JRS:  Because it’s easier to see things when you don’t have the references. You live somewhere, you adapt to a place, and you don’t know anymore what’s special or what’s not. When you’re in a completely foreign place, you realize very quickly, because you don’t understand the things from everyday life, what’s actually special. It’s really weird, but by being far away and not having a complete understanding of the society you’re living in, you understand much better the problems and the issues.  It’s bizarre.


DT:  You’ve traveled all over the world as a filmmaker. What do you want to communicate about what you’ve seen?


JRS: Values. I like to travel to places where there is very little social organization, very little law.  For instance, I’ve been shooting in Amazonia for a while now, in a place that’s a little village, lost on the frontier between society and the forest. You think the forest is full of Indians, but actually it’s not—it’s just a rich place that people try to conquer to make their lives better.  But actually it’s a difficult region, a lawless region. The police, the clergies, the local elite—problems are resolved at gunpoint, and that’s the way it goes there. Think about the Wild West—that’s the Wild West.  And so what  really interests me is how do you live up to your values?  When you’re someone who decides to invest your life—and there it means literally investing your life because you might get killed—in order to make things better, because you believe in unions or you’re a policeman who wants to have laws applied without corruption, how do you stay this person you wanted to be when society actually doesn’t push you to it? How do you deal with your own values?  I’m working on the documentary and feature right now.


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