The most pressing questions I had were about the two pictures of his that I live with on a daily basis.
You’ve seen his photographs before, even if you don’t know his name. Now 71, Sebastião Salgado spent four decades traveling to the most benighted corners of the planet, revealing his heart and soul through altruistic snapshots of global atrocities: the gold miners of Serra Pelada, the Rwandan Genocide, a war-torn Yugoslavia, Ethiopia’s refugee camps, and the Kuwaiti oil fields set alight by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. It was 25 years ago that German filmmaker Wim Wenders first discovered and marveled at the shutterbug’s blistering black-and-white photography. So taken by the images—striking social works often bearing witness on the poor, the suffering and neglected members of society on the margins—Wenders purchased two prints and promptly framed them above his office desk where they remain to this day. These ineradicable images made way for The Salt of the Earth, a profound and crushing portrait of the peerless Brazilian photographer.
Co-directed by the photojournalist’s son, Juliano Ribeiro, The Salt of the Earth is told more or less chronologically. Born in the Brazilian mining state of Minas Gerais, Salgado studied economics, even working with the World Bank following his exile in France in 1969, after Brazil’s military coup. Looking for more fulfillment, he invested in quality camera equipment and left for Niger in 1973, devoting his life to a discipline he knew virtually nothing about. Needless to say, it’s a risk that paid off. As Salgado’s first photo clearly demonstrated—an uncannily striking and moody portrait of his wife, Lélia Wanick—the artist was prenatally gifted with capturing not only a moment and a person, but also an essence that lingered far beyond one fleeting glimpse or imagination. Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro’s portrait of Salgado as a man undeterred in his creative vision and commitment to the planet is calibrated with the perfect dose of sentimentality.
The Salt of the Earth hits select theaters March 27.
Wim Wenders: Are you from Seoul or another place?
I’m from Seoul.
Wim: I love Seoul. It’s one of my favorite cities. So, Kee! You saw the movie.
So beautiful. Incredibly inspiring. You seldom meet someone so extraordinary.
Wim: Thank you. We like to hear that.
I was very curious after watching the film what Sebastião’s reaction was to seeing it.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: He was very, very moved. It’s his story. It moved Sebastião profoundly. He was very touched by the film.
Wim: You have to know that we didn’t show him anything while we were editing. After three months of editing, Sebastião called me, asking, “Are you done? Can we see it? Is it finished?” And I told him, “Sebastião, I haven’t even finished my very first rough cut. Right now, it’s about twelve hours long. You understand this will take some time?” He called me again a half year later with, “Are you done now?”
Juliano: They were so worried. They couldn’t understand why it’s taking such a long time.
Wim: I was in the editing room for a year and a half, so when they finally saw it, I think they understood why it had taken so long. It took so long. I wasn’t there, but you were there when they first saw it on the big screen and he was moved to tears.
Juliano: It was a big moment for them, yes.
When you’re making a documentary about someone’s life and their life’s work, there’s so much to consider. What kind of parameters did you set going into it, or do you find a lot of that in the edit?
Juliano: We did a bit of both. When we started, we wanted to tell the story of the witness, not the photographer. There was a lot to learn from Sebastião’s experience of the world. So that’s what we knew, but we had no idea how we were going to see it. We didn’t know how that was going to look like. We did have to find a lot of it in the editing process.
Wim: Juliano and I never shot any of it together, also. He shot his big, epic journey and I shot these big, epic interviews. And, eventually, I went to the forest when I realized the film would be incomplete without this other life of the family. But we never shot together. We met and talked about what I shot and his journeys. We saw some of each other’s stuff, but we were never two directors working at the same time.
Juliano: I was shooting in Brazil at the same time as Wim, but in different places. We really never worked together.
So the collaboration really began in the editing process.
Did Sebastião want to shy away from anything at all? Did he ask you not to reveal anything?
Juliano: Oh, not at all. We actually asked him what pictures he wanted and didn’t want to have in the film. There were just specific photographs that he wanted to use. We always submitted photographs to them first, so as an artist, he can choose.
Wim: No, he didn’t refuse any of the photographs we chose. But they always knew what we wanted to include in the film. Also, when we started asking for the family photographs, we always made sure that he knew what photographs we wanted to use.
Juliano: There’s one picture they blocked, actually. It was the only one, one we loved. It’s Sebastião, Lélia and me, as a little boy. We were on this nudist beach and Sebastião is just wearing two cameras. That’s all he’s wearing. I thought that captured his essence, but they didn’t want that photo.
I mean, that’s completely understable.
Juliano: I guess it is.
I think it’s remarkable that this journey started a quarter of a century ago for you, Wim. At what point did you realize that you had a documentary in your hands?
Wim: I owned of all of his major books. I had Exodus and Workers, and Genesis was still in the making. I had seen several of his exhibitions in different parts of the world. In a number of interviews, every time I’ve been asked “Who’s your favorite working photographer?” I always said, “Salgado”. One day, I thought, “It’s really stupid I talk about the man, whose photographs are hanging in my workroom, and I’ve never ever met him.” He was still working and I was wondering what he’s doing now. It would be a shame to not meet him. I had an Italian friend who ran a gallery and he helped me find Sebastião. He gave me his address. So one day, I knocked on his door. It was at his studio in Paris where he had been living for over thirty years at the time. I had no intention of making a movie. I just genuinely wanted to get to know him. He had seen a couple of my movies, but he’s not a moviegoer. He’s very much obsessed with his work and he’s a hard worker. His life is so complex already that he can’t go to the movies every second day. We started to talk and he found out I had a couple of his prints and we talked about them. He showed me around his studio and how he worked. At one point, he got a little antsy and realized I was already there for four hours. Maybe I overstepped my boundaries because it was too long. He had an appointment and I also had to go because I wanted to see the Barcelona-Chelsea game. Then I realized that’s why he wanted me out. He wanted to see that game. So we watched it together! Over the next few weeks and months, we became friends. I never thought of making a movie about him, really truly. That appeared out of nowhere one day when the three of us were sitting together. I got to know Juliano and he showed me his short films. All of a sudden, it was on the table.
Juliano: The thing that got us together was this intuition that what Sebastião had to share was his experience of the world. You see his photography in books, magazines and exhibitions, but his experience of the world we didn’t know. That was very special. At some point, I was traveling with Sebastião in the Amazonia and our relationship was difficult. When we came back and looked at the photographs he shot it’s, like, the photos say so much about the person you’re shooting, but it also says so much about the photographer holding the camera. What Sebastião sees of his son observing him, there’s a lot of love. So that’s important to pass on. That’s how it all started for me.
What was it like to grow up in that household? Sebastião has seen so much. He’s seen a lot of atrocities, so what was it like when he would come home?
Juliano: It was amazing! He had a lot to talk about when he came back. The house was always full of journalists and people who choose to travel all around the world to report. There were great intellectuals and people that Sebastião knew from his travels. We would all meet at home, get drunk, and speak about the world. As a child, there was so much to learn from it. So it was amazing. But it started to get a little problematic when I became a teenager because, you know, you’re looking for your own place in the world and your father has no capacity to listen to that. That’s when the complication started and things started going wrong for us. But, before that, it was really amazing.
How did he react when you decided to follow in his footsteps into photography?
Juliano: He was very supportive, actually. My first film was in Angola when I was 22. The second one was in Afghanistan. That was a crazy trip. I was there on my own and almost got killed half a dozen times. And Sebastião thought it was a very good idea. [Laughs] That’s support.
Wim, whenever I go into interviews, I obviously have so many curiosities. When you met Sebastião in Paris, what were some of the most pressing questions on your mind?
Wim: The most pressing questions I had were about the two pictures of his that I live with on a daily basis. There’s the one from Serra Pelada [pictured above] and the portrait of this torn woman from the Sahel. I wanted to know as much as possible about the two pictures because I really knew nothing. No context. I had bought these two pictures and they had become almost my closest friends in photography. They have moved with me from Los Angeles to New York to Berlin. I’ve always had them with me. When I have a new office, my private office, I always hang these two pictures. I wanted to know so much about these pictures that meant so much to me. He had taken a lot of trips to the Sahel. I had myself made a film under the protection of Doctors Without Borders, so he told me a lot about his association with doctors and how that enabled him to take these journeys. Africa is what we most connected with. I’ve been to Asia and South America, but Africa was a territory that he was more knowledgeable about than anybody else I’ve ever met. Out of that friendship, I grew so curious about what was driving him to do all of this. On that night, when the idea came up to make this documentary, I just said, “Let’s do it.”
Wim: The beauty about documentaries is that you don’t have to wait for financing. With narratives, you have a finished script for a year and by the time you can finally shoot it, another year has gone by. We shook hands and started a week later. I didn’t think it was going to take so long to make this. I slowly realized that, in order to have the right to make a movie about a man who gave so much of his time to each subject, sometimes a decade of his life, I had to start applying his own method. It slowly dawned on me that it was necessary to make that investment. That innocent little handshake led to three and a half years. And I got to meet this man closer than I wanted to.
Juliano: [Laughs] In the editing room.