Salt of the Earth, The: Interview with Wim Wenders, Director of Acclaimed Docu

Wim Wenders’ The Salt of the Earth is one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries.

Sebastião Salgado

I have known Sebastião Salgado’s work for almost 25 years. I’d acquired two prints, a long time back, which really struck a chord with me and moved me. I framed them, and ever since, they have hung over my desk. Inspired by these photographs, I visited an exhibition called At Work soon after that. Ever since then, I’ve been an unconditional admirer of Sebastião’s work, even though I only met the artist in person five or six years ago.

Catalyst for The Salt of the Earth

We met in his Paris offices. He took me on a visit round his studio, and I discovered Genesis. This was an exciting new departure in his work, and as always, a project of huge scope that would unfold over a long period. I was fascinated by his involvement in his work and his determination. Then we met again, and we discovered we both love soccer, and we started talking about photography in general. One day, he asked me if I would be interested in accompanying him and his son Juliano on a journey without any precise goal on which they had started out, and for which they thought they needed another point of view, that of an outsider.

Once you’d decided to co-direct the film with Juliano, Sebastião Salgado’s son, did you have to resolve any problems? The sheer volume of material, or the choice of photographs? Beyond the sequences of Juliano filming his father, did you fall back on any other archival footage?

The biggest problem was, in fact, the abundance of material. Juliano had already accompanied his father on several trips around the world, o there were hours and hours of documentary images. I’d planned to accompany Sebastião on at least two”missions” – in the great north of Siberia and in a balloon expedition over Namibia – but we had to cancel that because I fell ill and couldn’t travel. So instead, I started to concentrate on his photographic work, and we recorded several interviews in Paris. But the more I discovered his work, the more questions I had. And of course, I had access to a plethora of archive images.

Where and when the interviews with Salgado took place?

During the first interviews I appeared on camera. But as our conversations progressed, I increasingly had the feeling I should disappear, and that I should give the whole space over to Sebastião and, above all, to the photographs. The work should be left to speak for itself. So I had the idea of a directorial approach using a sort of dark room: Sebastião was in front of a screen, looking at the photographs, whilst answering my questions about them. So the camera was behind this screen, filming through his photographs – if that’s how I can put it – thanks to a semi-transparent mirror, which meant that he was looking at the same time at his photographs and the spectator. I thought it was the most intimate setting for the audience to hear him express himself and at the same time discover his work. We more or less cut out all the “traditional” interviews, of which only a few bits remain. But they turned out to be a great preparatory stage for our sessions in the “dark room”. We chose the photographs together, and those choices were mainly dictated by the stories that Sebastião told me, and which are in the film. We had hours and hours of rushes at our disposal.

Did you encourage him to comment on his photographs?

In the “dark room”, we ran through Sebastião’s entire photographic oeuvre, more or less in chronological order, for a good week. It was very difficult for him – and for us too behind the camera – because some of the accounts and journeys are deeply disturbing, and a few are genuinely chilling. Sebastião felt as if he was returning to these places, and for us, these internal journeys «to the heart of darkness» were also overwhelming. Sometimes we’d stop and I had to go out for a walk to get a bit of distance on what I’d just seen and heard. As for the question of whether his photographs are too beautiful, or too aestheticized, I totally disagree with those criticisms. When you photograph poverty and suffering, you have to give a certain dignity to your subject, and avoid slipping into voyeurism. It’s not easy. It can only be achieved on condition that you develop a good rapport with the people in front of the lens, and you really get inside their lives and their situation. Very few photographers manage this.

The majority of them arrive somewhere, fire off a few photographs, and get out. Sebastião doesn’t work like that. He spends time with the people he photographs to understand their situation, he lives with them, he sympathizes with them, and he shares their lives as far as possible. And he feels empathy for them. He does this job for the people, in order to give them a voice. Pictures snapped on the hoof and photographed in a “documentary” style cannot convey the same things. The more you find the right way to convey a situation in a convincing way, the closer you come to a language which corresponds to what you’re illustrating and to the subject in front of you, the more you make a real effort to obtain a “good photo”, and the more you give nobility to your subject and make it stand out. I think that Sebastião offered real dignity to all those people who found themselves in front of his lens. His photographs aren’t about him, but about all those people!

Did you work from a script, or was the film structured in editing?

I jotted the main outline of the film down on paper, and in the end, the “dark room” was a conceptual device, but overall, as with any documentary, you have to try and shoot footage in the moment and not miss what’s happening in front of you because of some prior decisions. That was specially the case when I went to Brazil and I filmed Sebastião and Lélia (his wife) in Vitória, the city where they live, or inside the Instituto Terra: I had to let myself be guided by the unexpected and be ready to shoot images on the spot. That’s the other aspect of my contribution to this film: seeking to draw a link between the Salgados’ extraordinary “other life” and the photographic body of work. In a way, their ecological commitment and their efforts to regenerate the tropical Atlantic Forest are, in my opinion, as important as Sebastião’s photographs. As a result, I felt that we were making two documentaries at the same time, which we then had to edit into a single film.

Touching study of the father-son relationship

From the outset, our film had several dimensions. The father-son relationship was also clearly part of it from the start. It could have turned out to be a pitfall for the film, and I think that the Salgados – father and son – were right to bring me in to avoid any risk of that happening. But ultimately, it’s a very moving side of the film.

One of Salgado’s trademarks is his exclusive use of black-and-white. Does he explain this? In your own films (KINGS OF THE ROAD, the perception of our world by the angels in WINGS OF DESIRE, THE STATE OF THINGS), you use it to great effect. Did this bring you closer?

I can totally identify with his use of black-and-white. What’s more, the part of the film that I filmed myself is also in black-and-white so that it sits better alongside his photographs. At one point, we touched on this question in our interviews. But we ended up not keeping that segment in the final edit. I felt that this aspect of his work could be understood without needing any additional explanation.

Many of your movie characters (Philip Winter in ALICE IN THE CITIES, Tom Ripley in THE AMERICAN FRIEND, or Travis in PARIS, TEXAS) have a link with photographs or photography. 

Sebastião took quite a lot of photographs while we were filming, including of the crew. So I might have the honor of appearing in some of his photographs. But I don’t think he knows my films as well as I know his photographs, which was the very reason behind making this film. He was the subject of my film, and not the other way around.

Presence, and the importance of his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, in the life and work of Salgado is tangible. Did she play an active part in the making of THE SALT OF THE EARTH?

They’ve been working together for 50 years. Lélia brings a real energy to Sebastião, which he needs for his works and his exhibitions, and they undertake his biggest photographic projects together. As such, it was obvious that she too would appear at the heart of the film. She’s an amazing woman, very strong, very forthright, honest and adorable. And very funny. The Salgados do laugh a great deal!

The last part of the film is an unexpected journey, at the same time intimate and powerfully ecological: the Salgado family’s return to the family ranch in Aimorés in Brazil. A breathtaking landscape devastated by deforestation, and the Salgados’ incredible gamble – as we see, already starting to pay off – of replanting two million trees. For Salgado the man and for the photographer of the most dramatic human conflicts, could we speak of a happy ending?

From the start, it seemed essential for us to take into consideration the fact the Salgados have another life besides photography: their commitment to ecology. And from the outset, I knew that I had to tell two stories at the same time. One could say that the reforestation program they have set up in Brazil, and the near-miraculous results they have achieved, concluded in a happy ending for Sebastião, after all the misery he has witnessed and the depression into which he slipped when he came back from Rwanda for the last time, and after the unbearable episodes that he has lived through. He not only dedicated his latest monumental work, Genesis, to nature, but one can also say that it is nature which allowed him to not lose his faith in mankind.