Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures. — Don McCullin
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau
Like Don McCullin, another photographer who has been on the alert for a very long time, Sebastião Salgado cares very much about the entire planet.
Salgado with the statuesque features of a Greek oracle figure looks straight at us; what is to be revealed?
As he plunges over and over into the “heart of darkness” while firmly holding onto its splendor, it is as if his own heart’s chambers expand each time, and giving up is out of the question.
Photograph after photograph, each one packed with its dark silvery sparks, Sebastião Salgado, like a present-day Hieronymus Bosch (cf. The Last Judgment), depicts for us both heaven and hell. How are we to judge? Aesthetics, ethics, abstractions… – cf. Susan Sontag’s critique below – where do we stand, if anywhere?
Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, the director behind such classics as Paris, Texas, Alice in the Cities, Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club… The Salt of the Earth won last year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard Special Prize, and an Academy Award Nomination (amongst other prizes).
From Susan Sontag’s “Looking at War” in The New Yorker:
Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to “care” more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder—and make abstract. But all politics, like all history, is concrete.
The Salt of the Earth trailer
Wim Wenders Interview from the Sony Website
How long have you known Sebastião Salgado, and were you already struck by his work before you met him?
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.
What was the catalyst for the project 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.
Your presence in the film is warm and discreet: where and when did the interviews with Sebastião Salgado take place? And what governed the choice of photographs that you discuss together?
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 by taking him back to the time and place where they were taken? A Brazilian gold mine, famine in the Sahel, the genocide in Rwanda, and so on. They are, for the most part, tragic images. Did you ever find them “too beautiful”, as some have reproached him?
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 for SALT OF THE EARTH, or was the film structured during 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.
The documentary offers the portrait of a man and brings to life his work. It also offers a touching study of the father-son relationship. Was this dual undertaking obvious from the start?
Yes, 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?
Yes, 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.
Photography is something you have in common, since you yourself are known and acknowledged as a photographer (and like Salgado, a long-standing fan of the Leica), and 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. Did Salgado know your work the way you knew his?
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 me making this film. He was the subject of my film, and not the other way around.
Throughout the film, the 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.
Another interview with Wim Wenders from Vulture:
Your documentaries have tended to focus on other creative people — from directors like Nick Ray and Ozu, to the Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, and now, the legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado in Salt of the Earth. Was it a conscious decision to focus on these types of figures in your nonfiction?
My main impulse to approach a documentary has always been: I liked something so much that I wanted to share it with other people. Pass on a (good and healthy) virus, so to speak. And what I wanted to share most happened to be the work of other artists. Like the films of Ozu, or the music by these amazing old men in Havana, or the work of the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, or of German choreographer Pina Bausch. In each case, I wanted to find out who the people behind these amazing artistic achievements were. What was driving them? Where did they get the inspiration from, the energy? To make a long answer short: I probably think that the last great adventure left on our planet is the creative process. And no, none of these choices were “conscious decisions.” I’ve made all my documentary work pretty much from the guts, and quite spontaneously.
This is not the first time you’ve taken a shared director credit. How did you come to work together with Juliano?
With Juliano, we decided to work together because we had the vague feeling that we could draw a more complete picture of Sebastião Salgado if we looked at him from our two points of view that were so drastically different: Juliano as the son who wanted to finally get to know his father, and me as a stranger who had declared for years already that this man was his favorite photographer, except that I had never met him. And now was a chance to really find out why his photographs had always touched me so much.
How did that collaboration work?
Juliano and I, we never shot together. We knew what the other one was up to, but we never shared a set. Juliano went to these remote places with his Dad, to New Guinea, or Siberia, or the Amazon, and I shot my long interviews with him in Paris, and I went to Brazil with him several times to see and film that miraculous forest at the Instituto Terra myself. It was only in the editing process that we really started to work together. And that was tough. For a few months we worked separately, in adjoining editing suites, with two editors. Juliano produced a rough cut of the hundreds of hours he had shot during their journeys. And I produced a rough cut of my interviews.
Then we tried over a certain period of time to combine and de-combine all this footage, with the result that we did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. These compilations didn’t amount to anything that promised a film. We were quite desperate, and for a while seriously considered abandoning our common plan and making two separate films. Both of us had enough material to edit a film of our own. But in the back of our minds, we both knew that the film we could possibly make together would be superior to each of our efforts.
So we eventually went to drastic measures. I let Juliano sit down with my material for a while to see what he would make of it, and vice versa; I edited his. That created a hell of a tension, but it was also an eye-opener for both of us. But still, our next efforts to combine something out of these versions failed just as miserably. And only then, a year later and deep into the editing process already, we realized we both had to give up control and do the hardest thing: forget who had shot what, sit down together, and edit together to make one film out of all of it. We worked with one editor — our heroine, Maxine, who had been an assistant on Pina and was as young as she was brilliant. And that finally produced results: We slowly saw the film we had dreamed of [appear]. But boy, had it been hard! We both had to overcome a lot of pride and ego problems.
What was your collaboration with Sebastião himself like?
Sebastião himself never got involved in the editing process. He and Lelia wanted to see the final film. They just wondered why it took us so long. And Sebastião and myself, over the almost two years of shooting, we got to know each other quite well. He was extremely camera-shy in the beginning, but he then simply decided to trust me — and his son as well — and be as truthful and honest as he could be. And reveal what a great storyteller he was, and that he had remained the economist who knew so much about the political, financial, and social context of all the places he had traveled to, but had also become a great artist in his own right.
Your work has often been done in collaboration — for example, with Peter Handke, or Sam Shepard, or Nicholas Ray. Do you feel, though, that sometimes, film culture gives too much value to the idea of the “auteur”? Do we value collaboration enough?
Good question. The “auteur” in the classic sense, as writer, director, and producer in one person, is hugely overrated in my book. And it’s more of a myth than a reality. Sure, I did a few of those, especially in the beginning of my career. And I made one film for a studio, American Zoetrope and Francis Ford Coppola, where I was a hired director. But I decided afterwards to never, ever do that again. All other films I made before or afterwards, I produced with my own companies, most of them with Road Movies. But I quickly got tired of being the only engine. Filmmaking is a hugely collaborative effort, and the thing is, people do their best if they are given a certain autonomy. In those lonely nights I found myself writing or rewriting the scripts alone in order to find out what I was going to shoot the next day, I was desperately longing for a companion, a co-author, and from Paris, Texas on, I always wrote with somebody else. Yes, with Peter Handke and Sam Shepard a few times, and with Peter Carey, and these were all “writers,” not “screenwriters.” But I also worked with Nicholas Klein on two scripts, with Michael Meredith, and with others.
The auteur theory has done a lot of damage, really, to ruin that triangle of writer, director, and producer. At least in Europe, we had to struggle to reinvent that cooperation and reinstall the magic triangle.
Your early films were marked by a fascination with American culture — with American music, American movies, the American landscape. How has your relationship with American culture changed over the years? Do you still have this fascination?
Yes. And no. I lived in America for 15 years altogether, two times, seven or eight years, in fact. So I managed to exorcise that initial fascination for the promised land that America was for me when I grew up. Comic strips, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Westerns, blues, spirituals, rock ‘n’ roll, fantastic cars, skyscrapers, pinup girls, chewing gum, you name it: All the good things came from that mythical place over the ocean. I grew up with a counterculture that presented fun as the great alternative to the droopy and utterly materialistic reality of postwar Germany. Anyway, not all of it lived up to its promises when I could finally make a reality-check, but I still keep a great love for the American landscape and a huge respect for the American people. I still subscribe to what the country stood for. (Even if it is now often struggling with that, and even if conservative American politics have often driven me crazy with anger.)
You once specialized in road movies, which was such an important genre in the ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s. Today, in our increasingly hyperconnected world, can the road movie have the same currency?
The genre doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore, mainly because everybody travels now. Traveling was once a privilege, and being on the road was a state of grace, and not that many people dared to take that liberty. But today, anybody can book a flight to the U.S. and rent a car or bike and go down Route 66 or feel like in Easy Rider … I made a film in 1990 called Until the End of the World, which was really some sort of ultimate road movie. It was a journey through four continents and a dozen countries. But then it turned into some sort of an “interior journey” into the souls of our central characters. And those journeys into the mind are definitely more dangerous and revealing today …
You have in the past spoken very articulately about style and about your influences. How do you feel your style as a filmmaker has changed over the years? If you were to shoot a film like Kings of the Road or Alice in the Cities today, how would it be different, do you think?
I just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) make these films anymore. It’s that simple. When I shot that Road Movie Trilogy with Alice, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road, there was only film as a medium to do that. Even “video” didn’t exist yet, neither as tools to shoot with or as a means of distribution. There was only theatrical and TV exploitation. And in my country, you could count the number of independent productions like that on one hand every year. Today, there are more movies made than ever. The entire landscape has changed. Viewing habits have changed, pacing has changed, commercials and music videos and now internet platforms have changed all the rules and the language. If I’d make a film like Wings of Desire today, it would go unnoticed because it could only stay on screens for a few weeks, and then be replaced by something else quickly, before it could establish an “aura,” for lack of another world.
Today, the challenges are so different. The entire process is different. When I started in the ’70s, I made a film every year! I was really able to learn, always together with the same key people, and develop a sense of my own handwriting. Today, anybody who makes his first feature has to wait years to move to the second. I could never get a film financed today without a script. Kings of the Road was financed with a half page of exposé. Unthinkable today.
Not that I’m complaining — I was privileged then and I feel privileged now to work in that period of complete upheaval, or transformation, of the entire film business, art, language, whatever you call it. It is so exciting to work today! Our tools are constantly improving and our possibilities are widening, both in storytelling as in documenting. (Until the End of the World was the first film ever to use digital-HD elements, Buena Vista Social Club the first all-digital music documentary that made it to a screen, [and] Pina the first documentary feature in 3-D …) I wouldn’t want to have started earlier or later, and I’m happy I can still work now. I have actually still worked with craftsmen or actors who had started their career in the silent era, and now I’m working with kids who have never even touched film stock!
Do you still look at your old films?
I restored a lot of my old films over the last two years, in 4K, so I had a close look at some of them. Sometimes, I wondered: Would I still be able to do that, would I still know how to fly without instruments, come up with recipes that I don’t even remember anymore how they were cooked up then? And of course I saw lots of mistakes and bad choices, too. And of course I would direct and cut differently now. Forty or 30 or 20 years have passed, in which all of us learned to see differently. I watched some of these films with audiences at the MoMA in New York at my recent retrospective there. Quite often I was cringing in my seat, I must admit. And quite often I also sat with my head high. And the one thing that counted more than anything, in the end, was that I recognized I did all these films with conviction, and because I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else, and I did stick to my guns. And maybe that’s the toughest thing today, if you start working as a young filmmaker: [to] find out what your guns are, find out what you can do better than anybody else. I was given the chance to do that. I knew only with my fourth film, with Alice in the Cities, that I was going to be — and remain — a film director.
Many of your films seem interested in the idea of healing — whether it’s the angels who listen to our inner torment in Wings of Desire, the drifter who tries to reunite his family in Paris, Texas, the idea of helping blind people see in Until the End of the World, or in Salt of the Earth, the idea of both reclaiming and repairing the environment, as well as the notion that photography re-creates the world. Is this something you’ve noticed in your work? Do you consciously seek out these types of stories? And do you think art can have a healing quality?
Yes. I do think so. I know from experience, from films by Ozu, Truffaut, Tarkovsky, Ford, Ray, Fuller, you name it, that you can walk out of a theater and see the whole world with different eyes. Films can heal! Not the world, of course, but our vision of it, and that’s already enough. I was more conscious of that than ever before in my last fictional work, Every Thing Will Be Fine — and the title already indicates it. I believe in this very function of cinema, of instigating change, or at least of making us open for the possibility of change. In the new film, the subject is the overcoming of a trauma. How even a dark cloud hanging over your life can disappear and fade away.
You once made a fascinating documentary called Room 666, in which a variety of filmmakers at Cannes discussed their ideas about the future of cinema. Now, decades later, whose responses are the most surprising to you? The most prophetic?
That short film was made in the early ’80s, at a time of a general depression of cinema, in some sort of hole when not only I thought that the seventh art might not see the end of the millennium. Boy, was I wrong. Were most of us wrong! But some of my fellow directors saw the future quite clearly, and nobody more positively and accurately than Michelangelo Antonioni. He realized that all the rules would change, that film was going to disappear and be replaced by something else, and that all our living conditions would change as well. We would become a different humanity. He was quite on the money.
Can you tell me what happened with the different cuts of Until the End of the World? Was it always your intention to have a shorter cut and a longer cut? The shorter cut disappointed many, while the longer cut has been hailed as a masterpiece. Do you wish you’d tried to release the longer cut to theaters at the time?
The film was the most ambitious thing I ever did, and also probably the most expensive independent-auteur film ever, at least at the time. It was an epic adventure, and we shot for one year. In the editing process, it became obvious that I could never deliver the two and a half hours that I had promised and that all distribution contracts were based on. The ideal film, the one I had wanted to make, came in at just under five hours. I tried in vain to convince my co-producers and distributors to agree to a two-part release. They all insisted on their contracts. I had to agree to deliver what I knew was going to be a disastrous Reader’s Digest of my film. But I decided [I’d] rather do it myself than let somebody else butcher it. And that was helpful. Because when my editor and I had that ideal version, we kept it, made a contact copy of that work print, and then continued to cut the film to pieces until we got to the accepted length.
And then we did the smartest thing I ever did in my life: We did not cut the negative! Instead, we produced, at my own cost, a duplicate positive of all the shots that were in that “short version” (which cost a fortune), and then cut that duplicate positive instead of the negative. From that, we then produced the many internegatives that went everywhere, to all the partners, and satisfied everybody’s needs. And nobody noticed.
A few years later, we went back to that original work print, fiddled a bit with it, and finally brought it to four and a half hours, and then we could cut the original negative! This way, my “director’s cut” finally saw the light of day. But because the Reader’s Digest had been so flawed and done so poorly at the box office (except for the soundtrack that sold like hotcakes), nobody really wanted to release the longer version. I showed it a handful of times, and that was it. And we just showed it at the MoMA as well. It is, in fact, a whole different ballgame. All the work we invested, my team, the actors, the musicians, finally paid off. The funny thing is, though, that what I had envisioned as a science-fiction film once, and written in the mid-’80s to take place around the turn of the millennium, is now just as much removed from that time as it was then, only that it is now in the past. I think that must be a rather unique experience for a filmmaker: to see his film turn from science fiction into a period movie.
Until the End of the World‘s vision of the future now seems so prophetic, with its in-car navigation systems, its portrait of constant electronic connection, web browsers, and even people addicted to mobile devices. How did you develop these ideas? Were there current technologies you based these on?
No. It was strictly fantasy. The only technology that actually worked and that we used was digital HD. That didn’t really exist yet. We produced the dream sequences of the film in the only prototype HD-editing suite in the world, at NHK in Tokyo. Nobody had ever produced anything on those machines. Sony and NHK let us fool around with that technology and come up with things that nobody had ever seen before. We were supposed to work in there for three weeks, and we stayed for three months. We ended up living there. Today, any gifted kid can produce that stuff on a computer, but then, we were the first to lay eyes on the digital future of images. And that was what the film was all about, in the end: trying to come up with a vision where our visual culture was going to take us.
You have never shied away from embracing new technologies — whether it was HD cinematography or 3-D. Do you feel that filmmakers are too suspicious of “new” technologies?
I wouldn’t generalize that. Many people are keen to try out advanced technologies and find out what you can do with it. Most of that, though, happens first today in commercials. But as far as 3-D is concerned, I’m very disappointed that it has remained a tool for action and fantasy and hasn’t really crossed over into other realms, like dramas or documentaries. Maybe I was a bit naïve, when we had done Pina, when I envisioned that 3-D was going to be accepted as this great new tool and actually as a whole new language of cinema, and was soon going to be accepted in many other fields. Look, that’s exactly what happened to “digital tools” in the beginning: They first were used in very expensive music videos and commercials, and then slowly found their way into studio movies. In the beginning, “digital” was a word for bad effects that you could blow up the whole world with. And then, only a few years later, that devilish tool single-handedly reinvented the documentary genre! And saved independent production by making shoots much more affordable.
So I figured something similar was going to happen with 3-D. I was wrong — at least so far. I still think it needs to happen. It would be an enormous scandal, a monstrous sin, if this fantastic language that cinema was dreaming of since its beginning was going to be wasted and discarded before it could show its real potential. And that potential, in my book, is not in animation or in action and in roller-coaster rides, but in representing “reality,” and in bringing people closer to us — more emotionally and more present than cinema was ever able to [be] before. I mean it! So far, audiences, and maybe most filmmakers and producers, don’t have a clue what 3-D can actually do, if only it was taken seriously, not just as a milk cow to generate more ticket sales, but as a new frontier of storytelling.
Sebastão Salgado/The Salt of the Earth on NPR
Sebastão Salgado at TED
Instituto Terra (founded by Sebastião Salgado & Lélia Wanick Salgado)