Salt of the Earth: Interview with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

Question: You were born in Paris 40 years ago. You are a filmmaker, and your first short film, SUZANA, dealt with the use of anti-personnel mines in Angola.

Answer: I was 23 then. At the time, I was about to become a dad for the first time, and I absolutely had to work. So I quit studying law, having realized that sitting behind a desk is not for me. As a young child, I already knew my father had a fantastic profession; he traveled the world, he was at the center of crucial events. There were always people at our house who had come to talk about these events. I listened to them, and without really realizing it, I developed an interest and a passion for geo-political affairs at a very young age. I wanted to go out an get to grips with the world, and without knowing exactly how, try to communicate what I was going to learn and discover. I started to work for Canal+, and for the Brazilian channel Globo. I made my first short film, SUZANA, in 1996, whenI went with my father to Angola, but we weren’t often together there. He took photographs, I filmed, and from that moment on, I understood that we were going to travel in different worlds. I then went to Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, and Brazil, where I took the opportunity to spend some time with my grandfather on his ranch. He was 96 at the time. I filmed him, and yes, he appears in SALT OF THE EARTH. As a child, almost subconsciously I wanted the same kind of life as my father. He was often absent, coming back from dangerous countries, heading off to denounce injustices, and so on. To me, that was a “normal” lifestyle. With all due modesty, and in my own way, I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Q: Did your father encourage you in the early stages?

A: Yes, with fantastic confidence, maybe close to recklessness. For example, he thought my plan to head off alone to Afghanistan was great! For her part, my mother was very worried, but since she had chosen to put up with my father’s perilous trips to theaters of war, and to be in denial of the danger, she accepted it. I was very lucky to have been able to start my career as a documentary maker very young, and to have fulfilled this. My father, that distant hero, when he was home, our relationship wasn’t always easy. From my adolescence, there was a distance between us. I pursued my path, I made some more documentaries, and then I moved to London to go to film school. It was at that point that our paths really went their separate ways. When, in 2004, he embarked on his latest long-term project, Genesis, this quest for unspoilt paradises which took up eight years, he suggested that I accompany him. I was reticent; I didn’t know how my work would fit in with him. But our first trip turned out to be incredible.

It took us to Brazil, to the heart of Amazonia, some 300km from the nearest town, to meet an isolated tribe, the Zo’é, with whom we stayed for a month. These are people who still live in the Paleolithic era. I experienced that as a privilege, a moment suspended in time. And a dialog formed between my father and I; or rather, reformed. We then went to Papua New Guinea, to Irian Jaya, to stay with another isolated tribe, the Yali, then to an island in the Arctic Circle, Wrangel, home to walruses and polar bears. During these journeys, we talked about a lot of things which we’d never talked about before, and that’s when I found a clear purpose to the footage I had been filming since I started accompanying him. When my father saw the first raw edits I had done with those pictures, he got very moved, to the point of having tears in his eyes.

Q: An outsider’s point of view is added to your own?

A: That process was already underway. There were already films on Sebastião, and films about other photographers. But it seemed to me that making a film about a photographer had its limitations: a man prepares to take a photo, and the story is over when the photo is taken. Except that he takes a second one, then a third, and so on. So in my opinion, it wasn’t the right approach. This film should come out of Sebastião’s own story: from his experiences, that few people have shared; from the fact that for 40 years he found himself in extreme situations, that he has witnessed humanity confronting some terrible events. It would be through exploring his story, his memories that we would come to pose this question: what changes a man? What changed in Sebastião Salgado? I knew the answer. I’d seen him live with Indians and the Papuan people. He sees people and does not judge them. He puts himself on the same level as them, no doubt because he too comes from a tiny, very violent village in a remote part of Brazil, cut off from the world. I think the people he photographs are sensitive to the benevolence of his viewpoint.

I think about what happened between Sebastião and them before and after taking the photographs, and how these exchanges can nourish us. Yes, even us, in our privileged and indifferent societies. That was the film. But for it to take shape, we needed someone other than me, less involved than I am, to speak freely to Sebastião, to tackle what should be the core of the film. In other words, to show the evolution of his gaze over the years, everything that we could learn from his career, in a militant way – I know he doesn’t like that word – as he becomes increasingly aware that his photographs can, to some extent, change things for the people he photographs.

Is that when Wim Wenders became involved?

Wim Wenders was the ideal person. He already knew Salgado’s work; they had already met a few times. At the time, Wim was already nursing the idea of making a film about Sebastião. We saw each other a lot, we talked a lot, and it was quite natural that we decided to make this film together. Not only did he understand the project, but he immediately adhered to it and was totally committed to it. It was really wonderful to see this man respecting the intimacy of this project, but adding a host of essential elements, bringing his own particular sensitivity, his own talent in terms of images.

Q: How did you divide up the work?

A: I showed Wim what I had filmed during the trips with my father, and explained how I felt these images had to be linked to Sebastião’s trajectory so that we could learn from his testimony, his memories, the situations in which he had found himself. This discussion resulted in the emergence of the structure of our film, but for my part … I was incapable of having the necessary distance to achieve this. Wim Wenders was now there to pull together this story of a man who had grown weary of the suffering he had photographed, who himself bears the scars of what he has seen and experienced, and who said: “After years working in refugee camps, I had seen so much death that I felt myself dying.” To begin with, I thought that Wim and my father would sit either side of a little table and would talk. Not so. Working with a great artist like Wenders changes things, and the idea he came up with to confront Sebastião visually with his memories is much more ingenious. At the end of these very fertile confrontations, we shut ourselves away in the editing room for a year and a half. That enabled us to eliminate certain complicated narrative threads, and to be more simple and direct.

Q: Susan Sontag spoke of the “inauthenticity of the beautiful” in Salgado’s work?

A: There are two aspects to Sontag’s reproach: the supposed fascination with poverty – or death, in fact – that the photographer felt, and the fact that the subjects are not identified, unlike the photographer, who is revered at their expense. In her critique, Sontag also denounces the cynicism of the media that commission and publish these photographs. I think it’s very unfair to associate Salgado with all that. He would spend several weeks, even several months in countries that were often torn apart, which he was drawn to by his urge to bear testimony. He needs to create a relationship with the person he’s going to photograph, and says that it is the subject who ends up “giving” him the photo. The emotion, the empathy guide him. I think that comes across very well in the film.

Q: Your mother Lélia was 17 when she met your father.  How involved was she in SALT OF THE EARTH?

Lélia did not get directly involved in the film, and in a way, you could say that Sebastião wasn’t involved either! They put their faith in Wim and me. Lélia and Sebastião is a long story; they have always taken their decisions together, and THE SALT OF THE EARTH belongs to both of them.

What did the return to the family ranch represent for you, given the huge rehabilitation project for its environment which is underway? A mission? A utopia? A future?

Nobody could believe it, me less than anyone given the state of the ranch and the desolation of the surrounding landscape. To begin with, it was a modest project, the idea being to replant a few trees around this childhood house where we would return on vacation. But my parents are clearly driven by something, and once again, they threw themselves into it body and soul. The project, which was supposed to remain on a family scale, suddenly became a monumental ecological undertaking: “OK, we’re going to replant the whole forest.” They set up the Instituto Terra, which has become the leading employer in the region. They have already planted out 2.5 million trees on my grandfather’s former ranch, which is now an ecological reserve, and another million more on the surrounding land. It’s an insane project, huge and magnificent.

Preparing your first fiction feature film. 

It is set in Brazil, in Sao Paulo. It’s at the writing stage, but I can tell you it will be a psychological thriller built around a powerful theme in Brazilian society: upward mobility.

ABOUT SEBASTIÃO SALGADO

Sebastião Salgado was born on 8 February 1944 in Almorés, Minas Gerais, Brazil. He lives in Paris, France. Having previously worked as an economist, Salgado began his career as a professional photographer in 1973 in Paris, working with the photo agencies Sygma, Gamma, and Magnum Photographs until 1994, when he and Lélia Wanick Salgado formed Amazonas images, an organization created exclusively for his work.

Salgado has travelled to over 100 countries for his photographic projects. Most of these works, as well as appearing in numerous print publications, have also been presented in books such as Other Americas and Sahel-l’Homme en Détresse (1986), An Uncertain Grace (1990), Workers (1993), Terra (1997), Migrations and Portraits (2000), and Africa (2007). Touring exhibitions of this work have been, and continue to be, presented throughout the world in leading museums and galleries.

In 2004, Salgado began the Genesis project, aimed at presenting the unblemished face of nature and humanity. Genesis consists of a series of landscape and wildlife photographs, as well as photographs of human communities that continue to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions and cultures. This body of work was conceived as a potential path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature.

Two books of Genesis, published by TASCHEN, with international distribution in six languages, came out in Spring 2013. At the same time, the Genesis touring exhibition started to be presented.

Since the 1990s, Salgado and Lélia have also worked on the restoration of part of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. They succeeded in turning the area into a nature reserve in 1998 and created the Instituto Terra, an environmental NGO dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation, and education.

In 2012, Salgado and Lélia received the Prize e from instituto e, UNESCO Brasil and Rio de Janeiro Municipality, as well as the “Personalidade Ambiental” Prize from the World Wildlife Fund, Brazil. These awards were given in recognition of their work with Instituto Terra.

Salgado has been awarded numerous major photographic prizes in recognition of his accomplishments. He is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and an honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States.20

Partial Bibliography of Sebastião Salgado

Other Americas Pantheon Books, USA, 1986.

Sahel, The End of the Road University of California Press, USA, 2004.

An Uncertain Grace Aperture, USA, 1990.

Workers Aperture, USA, 1993.

Terra Edited by Lélia Wanick Salgado and published by Phaidon, United Kingdom and USA, 1997.

Exodus Edited by Amazonas images and published by Aperture, USA, 2000.

Africa Taschen, (international) 2007.

Africa Taschen, (international) 2010. 2nd edition.21

Exhibitions

• Sebastião Salgado has exhibited in the world’s most prestigious venues, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1992.

• The exhibition at the palais de Tokyo in Paris in 1986 set the attendance record for the museum.

• He was the first photographer to have exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo in 1993.

• The exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in San Francisco, USA in 1990, set the attendance record for the museum.

• The exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1993, set the attendance record for the museum.

• The exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art, Japan in 209 drew record attendance for the museum.

In 2013 // Spring

London – Natural History Museum, April 11th 2013

• Rio de Janeiro – Jardim Botanico, May 2013

• Toronto – Royal Ontario Museum, May 12th 2013

• Milan – Centro Della Culture del Mondo, May 2013

Autumn

Paris – Maison Européenne de la Photographie 13 Septembre 2013

• São Paulo – SESC Belenzinho Septembre 2013

• Séoul – National Art Museum or Tokyo Septembre 2013

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Upcoming Exhibitions

In 2014 // Spring

Singapore – National Art Museum, April 24th 2014

• New York – May-September 2014

• Seoul or Tokyo, April 2014

• Swedish Museum of Photography, Summer 2014

In 2015

Berlin – Martin Gropius Bau Museum

• Montreal – Foton (Le Vieux Port) June-September 2015