Documenting a legendary photographer

We spoke to Sebastio Salgado, subject of the new documentary The Salt of the Earth.

By Sebastio Salgado
Brazilian-born photographer Sebastiao Salgado spent much of his career documenting poverty in developing nations, from mines and coffee plantations in South America to itinerant desert dwellers in the sub-Sahara. Profoundly rocked by what he saw in war-torn Rwanda in 1994, Salgado shifted away from his brand of photojournalism towards documenting nature.

He returned to his native Brazil and took over the arid, unproductive family farm, working with his wife Leila towards bringing it back to life. That sand-swept farm turned the Instituto Terra, a nature reserve dedicated to the reforestation of the Atlantic forest. Now in his ’70s, Salgado is the subject of a new documentary co-directed by his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and German auteur Wim Wenders.

Sebastio Salgado
Sebastio Salgado

The Salt of the Earth is extremely thorough about Salgado’s life’s work and the many twists and turns of his career so much so that I could barely think of what to ask him that wasn’t already covered by the film. There’s one thing that the film couldn’t possibly cover, though: what it’s like to watch an extremely thorough film about yourself.

“It was a great surprise for me. We started making this film because Juliano, my son, wanted to make a film about his family. His grandfather is in it — the footage of his grandfather was shot at the end of the ’90s — and he started travelling with me and filming me. At some point after that, Wim was interested in featuring me in a movie that was being planned where four different photographers were profiled by four different directors. I told him, ‘Why don’t you just make the film with Juliano? I’m sure he’d accept.’ Juliano accepted and they travelled with me and filmed me. By the end of it, they had so much footage that it was impossible to decipher. I wondered, ‘What are they going to do with all this? Really?!’” he laughs.

“It was a huge surprise to me to see that they were really working towards a precise goal, with very strict guidelines, and in the end I found myself watching my entire professional life, my entire manner of working unfold over the course of two hours. All the great emotions of my life are in the film,” he continues. “All of the intense things I’ve lived in my life are intense in the film, too. It represents 40 years in someone’s life not only on a professional level, but also on an ethical, ideological, relational and intimate level.”

Wim Wenders with Salgado
Wim Wenders with Salgado

Nevertheless, Salgado had to adapt to the fact that the man filming him was to be considered a filmmaker first, and his son second, and that filmmaking and photography are very different beasts. “Juliano travelled with me many times as a kid (…), so I used to travel with him. After he went to film school in London, he came on many trips with me, we’d worked together on that level — but this was different. It was very, very complicated. I didn’t want him to bring a crew along, so he did everything himself, but cinema is very slow compared to photography. Photographers are fast — when something happens, they’re part of the phenomenon, they move with it. You know you’ll come back from an assignment, but you don’t know what you’ll get. Cinema is slow. They know what they want. You know, a photographer is like a wild horse. They run one way knowing they could always run to the other, while cinema is an intellectual image. It’s been thought through, it works towards a specific direction.”

Seeing the finished film was also the first time Salgado saw his photography used in a film. “Listen, it was the first time in my life that I saw my own photos at such an incredible scale!” he says. “The first time you sit in a cinema and you look at an image of that size, you really travel in it. It was impossible for me to do that beforehand, since I’d never had access to my photos in that way. (…) There was a great deal of learning in it for me, learning about my own images.”

The Salt of the Earth ends on Salgado’s last major-scale project, Genesis. Unlike his previous works, Genesis consists entirely of landscapes and nature photography. Since the creation of Instituto Terra, Salgado has dedicated much of his work to nature. “After I shot Exodus and Migrations and saw what I saw in Rwanda, I no longer believed in the survival of the human race. I thought we were going extinct. Afterwards, with the development of Instituto Terra, I really began to see the world: water, birds, insects, animals… It gave me this incredible urge to go out and really look at our planet with the Genesis project. I discovered so many things. I discovered that even the mineral world is as alive as I am, that the vegetal world is as rational as I am, that all animals have tremendous respect, you see?” says Salgado.

“I became very optimistic for our planet, but not optimistic at all for our species. The human race, sincerely? I don’t believe it’s going to survive unless it changes its current behaviour: destruction of the world, destruction of other species… We’re already done, we’re already aliens on this planet because we don’t truly live on it. We live in cities. People who live in Montreal, people who live in Toronto… they don’t live in Canada. They don’t know Canada. They don’t know Canadian plants or Canadian animals’ survival instinct. We’re already away from our planet by being in cities.”
The Salt of the Earth opens on April 24.

An exhibition of Salgado’s work is planned in the Old Port this summer from July to September.

Watch the trailer for The Salt of the Earth here: