In his newest film, The Salt of The Earth, Wim Wenders’s lilting German accent guides you from the frenzy of Brazilian gold mines to the splendor of the country’s replanted forests, and in between through the horrors of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 1990s, telling the story about the life, work, and incredible empathy of social documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado. Wenders co-directed the film with Sebastião’s son Juliano who casually began the project, accompanying his father on the same sort of photo trips which took him away so often during Juliano’s childhood. While the trips never manifested into the father-son bonding experiences Juliano had hoped for, they did grow into a collaboration with one of cinema’s living legends that eventually—after months of bullheadedness and editing-room shouting matches between the two directors—led to an Oscar-nominated film, one that does justice to the love Sebastião has for the people he photographs.
To quite literally show the man behind the photos, Wenders and Juliano superimposed interviews with Sebastião against the photographs he discusses, the roundness of his bald head layered underneath the meticulous detail of his silvery black-and-white images, many of which will be familiar even if the name Sebastião Salgado isn’t. Over the past decades, Sebastião’s photographs of Ethiopian refugee camps, Yugoslavian war victims, and firefighters during the Kuwaiti oil fires were widely seen and had the power to make people care about these crises. The Salt of the Earth is quite simply a portrait of an artist, like many of Wenders’ documentaries—his most recent film Pina about dancer and choreographer but also older films like the 1989 doc Notebooks on Cities & Clothes about Japanese fashion designer Yoji Yamamoto. Favoring emotion over analysis, together Juliano and Wenders chart the story of a young man who grows up on a farm in Brazil and marries his first love Lelia, to the couple’s time in France when he was an economist at the World Bank to their career together making ambitious photo books about workers, refugees, and finally nature, through to their most recent project replanting forests of trees and reversing environmental devastation on Sebastião’s family land.
I caught up with two co-directors Wenders and Juliano Salgado in New York.
Whitney Mallett: How was collaborating? Had either of you co-directed something before?
Wim Wenders: For heaven’s sake no. Co-directing is a disaster. I don’t recommend it. It worked for us, but it took a long time. You have to know, we never shot anything together. Juliano did these incredible to Siberia to the Amazon to Papa New Guinea with his Dad. And I shot with him in Paris and in Brazil, but we never shot together.
The thing about collaboration is it only started afterwards. We both had a dream of a film that we had in ourselves about Sebastião. Juliano had enough material to make a beautiful film on his own about his father, and I had enough material to make a beautiful film on my own. And for a long time it looked like we were going to have do this, we were going to have to make two films because we didn’t know how to combine our two aspects.
Juliano Salgado: And also we didn’t know how to collaborate as simple as that.
WW: He’s a stubborn guy.
JS: I am, but he is too. He is stubborner actually and the more difficult of the two of us.
WW: It took us a year and a half in the editing. And if it wasn’t the clear notion that the film that we could possibly do together would be better than the one each of us could do, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. And boy, was it painful to bring it out because we had to do something that no director wants to do. I had to let him cut my stuff, and he had to let me cut his stuff. And we learned how to do it, and we learned how to live with it, and we learned how to not become enemies over it and actually become friends over it. We gave up our egos to serve—both of us—Sebastião better.
WM: Was anything revealed to you about your own filmmaking process?
WW: Yes I think it was quite a revelation to see how your own stuff could disappear in common stuff and so that you wouldn’t think of it anymore as your own stuff anymore. We both started to think of it how to make Sebastião’s ideas and how to make his world and also how to make this utopia he started with these forests, how to link it together and make it all be more important than our movie.
JS: Absolutely. How to give justice to Sebastião’s and Lelia’s experiences and the power of the example of them that’s there with their life. We managed to get to that level of power when we did it that way.
WW: And the more we stepped back the more we both Sebastião and Lelia could shine and that was a great experience and that’s why we remain friends or became friends over the struggle and that’s why we are both quite proud of the film because it is bigger than us.
WM: In a lot of ways it’s a film about artistic process. Wim, you’ve done quite a few of these films profiling artists. How is Sebastião’s process unique?
WW: His approach is even unique among photographers because his field of social photography, the accepted opinion is that these photographers travel in to crisis areas, war or disaster zones—they travel in, they get their pictures, and they get the hell out of it. And Sebastião doesn’t do that. And that is the great difference between him and others. He immerses in it. He lives with these people, and he lives in their conditions, and he stays and he returns over and over again.
And that is the great mystery for me of the photographs of Sebastião that I sensed before. I sensed there was a different love of mankind than in other photographs and there was a different conspiracy between the people he shot and himself but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And only when he started talking and hearing all the stories, I realized, itt was because he spends time with these people. He lives there. In a way that he almost lived more with these people than with his own family. And that is something I didn’t know before.
WM: And is that part of why you had such a difficult relationship with him growing up, Juliano?
JS: I’m sure it is actually. It’s complex. It’s complicated to know why you have so much difficulties with your father when it happens. But looking back at is, I think that’s mostly the reason actually.
WM: What was it like having a subject that can shoot back?
JS: In my experience it was awful. You know when i set up to travel with him and I thought I would get to know my father and we would be able to be together. In those places, suddenly we would start to speak of other things, but actually the man is so focused into what he does, he will refuse to do things twice. He doesn’t collaborate at all, he runs away from you, and you need to run after him with your camera and your kit. It was difficult but really really interesting that was kind of difficult because he is so focused into what he does.
The amazing thing is that you can see him making relationships with people that are so distant from him, and that happens really quickly. He’s met these guys ten minutes ago and they’re having this bond. He’s very focused into the world, that people that he’s going to meet, how to adap. Those are the things he’s really focused on so theres not much room to chat, to mingle so that was a bit disappointing for me, but it was totally interesting being there.
WW: I accepted the fact that the camera was a part of his body and he always had it with him when I shot with him, and he just wouldn’t leave the house without a camera, like he was missing an arm or a part of his body if the camera was there. And i got used to the fact he would shoot back, so in the middle of a situation, all of a sudden he picked up the camera and thought we were an interesting subject. At first i was little appalled because I thought we would have to cut this all out whenever he takes his camera out and shoots us, the crew. I thought he’s got a nerve to photograph us in the middle of the interview. But then i realized, that’s him, that’s his nature.
WM: How exactly did you do those interviews where his face is superimposed underneath his photographs?
WW: Well we shot for weeks already in very conventional situations, where we would both be on camera, Sebastião and I. We went through books all his work and huge stacks of hundreds of photos and we stood in front of walls with photos. At the end, we knew his entire path through in photography and the producer thought we had done it because we had gone through everything. And then I realized we were only at the beginning. This entire shooting process of these interviews was just the preparation. It couldn’t be the film itself. It was first of all too conventional and I realized that the only magic moments were sparse because when Sebastião got into his photographs he would become immersed but then when he looked at me and saw the two cameras, he became more official.
I realized there had to be a whole different way to get Sebastião to enter his past and to enter into the other lives that he was witnessing and eventually I came up with this idea of the teleprompter—to give the teleprompter a whole different function. Usually the teleprompter is something in front of the camera that has text so the news announcer or the president or whatever will look into the camera and they have the text and you think they know it all by heart, or that they make it up, but they don’t, they just look into the camera. They address people and have a bond with the audience, but in reality they read the text. But that of course wasn’t good for us. We didn’t want him to read his own text. We wanted him to look at his pictures. We realized we not only throw text on a teleprompter but there was a way to throw the images.
He would just see the picture in from of him and the rest was dark. The camera was hidden behind the teleprompter. He was just in a dark room, looking at his photographs, and he could actually talk about every detail and about the situation, everything that came to his mind almost by association because he was alone with his photographs. I was sitting behind the camera. He didn’t even see me. but I could slowly switch the pictures and give them a flow.
WM: Even when you were making two separate films, was it clear to both of you from the beginning that Lelia and the love story between Sebastião and Lelia would be so central?
JS: That was something we shared. We had a lot in common in terms of our intuition before we started.
WW: The man would not even have become a photographer if it weren’t for her.
JS: He probably wouldn’t have left Brazil.
WW: It is such a unbelievable relation as man and woman the two of them have. Sweethearts at the age of 17, or he was 20, and then to create this body of work together and for Lelia to be the driving force behind it. I haven’t witnessed any relationship like it so that love story had to be in it.
Sometimes you need miracles. And another one of these miracles was Juliano saying, ‘hey by the way, did I ever tell you I shot my grandfather in 1999. I was a young guy and I thought it was important that somebody film my grandfather. And this is the footage? Do you think I can use it?’ I said, ‘are you crazy?!’ It was too good to be true. The grandfather, what would we have done without him?
JS: It would have been incomplete, it would have been very difficult to tell this whole story
WW: And there’s this one beautiful joke, his grandfather made, that we didn’t put in the film. Lelia gave him a camera, and here’s an old man who first time in his life takes pictures and he enjoys it. He’s been a farmer all his life, his son was a world famous photographer, and he got a camera and he started to take pictures and then he tells Sebastião, ‘no wonder you became a photographer, because I was a photographer without knowing—‘
JS: ‘—And you inherited from me.’ That’s the old man!