Wim Wenders on the Stories behind the Images in 'The Salt of the Earth'
By Tom White
Sebastião Salgado, the subject of Wim Wenders’ latest documentary, The Salt of the Earth, has earned formidable renown for his photography projects over the past four decades. These projects have taken him to some of the most tragic and devastating places, ravaged by war and famine and pestilence, as well as to remote places where the best of humanity still persists. His projects sometimes take him up to ten years, but he comes away with a portfolio that manages to exude some sort of beauty amidst the sorrow. After documenting so much pain, he took a break, then turned his camera to nature—in his native Brazil, in West Papua, in the far-flung tundra of Siberia.
Wenders, a photographer himself as well as a filmmaker, was so taken 20 years ago by two of Salgado’s photographs that he discovered in a gallery in Los Angeles, that he bought them on the spot. He didn’t actually meet Salgado until 2009, when his son Juliano, a documentary maker himself, was accompanying his father on his photographic expeditions.
Then began the difficult journey of fusing together two perspectives, two sensibilities…two films, really. The result, The Salt of the Earth, earned for Wenders and Juliano Salgado an Academy Award nomination, an IDA Award nomination, a César Award for Best Documentary and an Un Certain Regard Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
We spoke with Wenders in Los Angeles, days before the Academy Awards, about capturing the creative process, overcoming the obstacles to making The Salt of the Earth, and how Salgado impacted him as an artist.
You’ve made a number of documentaries about artists and the creative process, including Notebook on Cities and Clothes, Buena Vista Social Club, Pina and now The Salt of the Earth. What draws you to this subject? What do you find most challenging about taking on a project about an artist and his or her work, and what do you find most rewarding?
The most rewarding part is that I can share something that I love and admire with others. My particular impetus to want to make a documentary is to spread a virus of something that I really like—a good virus.
I think that the artistic process is one of the greatest adventures left, and sometimes also the most unknown. Who really knows what happens in the mind of a fashion designer? People think that can’t really be all that much. But then you realize his work process is pretty close to the work process of a director.
And the work process of a photographer who has witnessed the last 30 or 40 years of this planet’s course was really something I didn’t know much about because the kind of photography that Salgado does has nothing to do with the photography that I do. And I was really curious to find out what drives a man like this to immerse himself so much into his subject. He spends weeks and months in these remote places and submits himself to conditions that nobody in his or her right mind would do.
In the film, you say you had been struck by his work 20 years before actually meeting him. Did you meet him in the middle of the process when Juliano had been making this film, or before?
I met him five years ago. He was in the middle of Genesis, which was far from being finished. And Juliano had accompanied his father already on a trip or two, but that was not a film project. It was more of a procedure of Juliano’s to get closer to his father and get to know him a little bit. And as he’s a documentary filmmaker, he thought, “Well, I’ll travel with him and I’ll accompany him with my camera.” But they didn’t have a film in mind.
For them, it was some sort of therapy between father and son because Juliano, at some point in his life, was pretty angry that his father had been there for everybody all over the world except his own kid. That anger has dissipated and our film has contributed a lot to the two of them being the best of friends now. But still, when I met Sebastião in 2009, it was without any idea of a film whatsoever.
I had so often answered the question, “Who is your favorite photographer?” always with the same answers about Sebastião Salgado, that eventually I thought, “The man is working and I could just as well meet him.” We had a common friend, an Italian gallerist, who connected us. And then I knocked at the door of his atelier in Paris, and we had a couple meetings. He showed me his current work, and how he worked in his archive. And I got to meet Lelia [his wife] and I got invited to dinner with them.
That’s where I met Juliano. And we slowly became friends. We met quite often, but still without any intention to make a movie. At some point, Sebastião asked me if I could give him advice. He was wondering if for this new project, Genesis, there was any outlet for him other than what he knew, which was making a book and having an exhibition. Can he show his work on the screen, maybe with music? And I said, “Don’t, because I’ve been in that position and I decided that I would never show my photographs again on the screen because it becomes a slideshow.”
I went home and thought, “Maybe I was a little premature.” Next time we met, I said, “There is a way for you to show your work on screen. And that is, you’d have to accompany it with your stories because then these photographs will be protected. Don’t go just with music and sound effects.”
The next time we met he said, “I thought about your idea and I think it’s very good, but I have to tell the stories to somebody. Couldn’t it be you?” And then I said, “Well, sure. I would love to do that because this way I hear all these stories. But what is it going to become?”
And then the three of us figured out it could become a movie that we made together, that incorporates Juliano’s journeys with his dad.
It seemed to me that approaching him from two different angles, with his son on one side with his point-of-view of his father and me as a new friend and fellow photographer, somehow it could be interesting to look at him from both sides. We had no idea how we would do it. And even while we were shooting, we never shot anything together. Juliano accompanied his father to Papua New Guinea and to Siberia, and I shot with them in France and Brazil. We really didn’t have any structural ideas for our film. We just thought, “We have to just go to the end of what we can do and then we’ll see it.”
There are two perspectives of Sebastião talking about his work in the film. First, we see him talking to you about his photography while showing it to you. And then we see a multi-tiered approach: He talks directly to us—sometimes his face is superimposed over his work, sometimes we only see his face. And sometimes we only see his work while he discusses it. Did you feel that the former approach might not have worked as well as the latter one?
No, that didn’t really work well. We did that for weeks—a rather conventional approach to interviews with two cameras—one on him and one on me—and a third fixed camera on the pictures we were looking at.
And we sat there with huge stacks of photographs and we went through his entire work from the beginning to the end. At the end, I knew every aspect to his work. And we also knew that this was not going to be a movie; I didn’t want to appear so much.
It dawned on me that the whole thing until then had been research. I told that to David [Rosier], the producer, who turned white because he had figured I was done. And I said, “No, now I have to start.”
I had noticed in all these interviews that every now and then there was really some magic, and Sebastião had really disappeared inside a photo and inside of a memory and had gone deep into it. But then when he looked at me and the cameras, that magic always immediately dissipated; it became an interview instead of pure memory or storytelling. So, we had to amplify those moments.
And then one sleepless night, I realized that the privileged place for a photographer is a darkroom—especially since he had enlarged his own work for a long, long time. And I thought, A darkroom is great for him; that’s where he’s familiar. And he can only see his pictures. Nothing else. No soundman with a mic. No cameras. Just his photographs.
At some point, I came up with the idea of a teleprompter, onto which, instead of showing text, I would show his photographs. He just had his pictures on the screen. And the camera was behind the screen shooting through the semitransparent mirror that is a teleprompter. So, while looking at his photographs, and not seeing anything else, he was also looking into the camera, and only talking about his photographs.
And as I knew the stories so well by now, I could guide him by switching from one picture to the next. I was sitting behind the camera. He didn’t see me. And I could slowly guide him through his own work. And every now and then I could ask a question, but he didn’t see me. So, he was very intimate, really getting deeply into it and sometimes really carried away and too emotional. We had to stop because it was quite heavy to take him back into all these journeys.
We had a second camera recording exactly which photographs we were shooting. Later on we could make the mirror that he was looking at transparent and superimpose the photograph he was talking about. That’s why we had this very tight close up of him from two angles—from the front and the side. And that’s why we were also able to superimpose his own photograph because that’s what he was seeing at that point.
And how did you choose the photographs that he would talk about on camera? Was it something spontaneous?
No. We would spend the whole day going through Sahel, let’s say. It had hundreds and hundreds of photographs. We choose the 30 that mattered for him. Then I slowly clicked to one after another while he was talking.
We did that over a period of two weeks, every day. We went into detail through hundreds of photographs. And the stories sometimes were long, and sometimes very, very painful because he didn’t think it would take him so deeply into it.
When you got to the editing room with Juliano, you were two directors with essentially two films. Talk about how you reconciled the two films into one. What was the common ground in the beginning?
Well, before we could find any common ground each of us had to go through his material and make rough cuts of it. That took us an eternity because we had so much to view. And I had shot so many hours at the Terra Institute in Brazil.
To make a rough cut of all of it took me half a year, and then we still had 20 hours. Same with Juliano. He cut all his journeys with his dad and a lot of them are no longer in the film. And then we looked at each other’s stuff and tried to structure it somehow, but we never got anything to a length that was acceptable; it just never made sense.
Maybe because we had taken it as a rule from the beginning: I said, “He is so much the narrator of the film. He talks so much. Let’s just not consider adding voices to it. He is enough if the film has him as a voice.” For a long time we tried that and we combined and combined and recombined. And we had started working with two editors. Finally, we only worked with one.
We edited one day with him and one day with me. And whatever we tried wasn’t going to be a movie. We couldn’t reconcile the two different points of view. Eventually we were at the point where I said, “We can each make a nice film. Juliano, you can make an extraordinary film about a father and son, and I can make one about his photography and the Terra Institute. But it’s never going to work unless we do something drastic—unless I can cut your stuff and I give you mine.” We tried that for a while, but that was not a solution either. Sometimes you’re offended if somebody takes something out that you thought was indispensable.
Eventually we said, “No, this is also not going to work. We have to sit down and edit it together and forget whose material is whose and just treat all of it as one and all of it as ours.”
Slowly something shaped up that was looking more like a movie. And I said, “Well, if we are now really combining and if we’re really editing it as if it was one director who had shot all of it, we have to stand by it and we have to introduce ourselves as the voices behind the film.” And we started to work. I wrote a first draft of a narration. And then Juliano added his. And then we found a way to throw each other the ball, so we could both carry it for a while. And that did the trick finally. Then we had another month of fine-cutting and doing several narrations.
In the end, I didn’t think anymore, “This is his stuff and this is my stuff.” We both had the freedom to look at it as one film that we were making together. And the more we did that the more something shaped out that was better than the film I could’ve done alone and better than the film that he could’ve done. And that was proof that it was all worth it.
I wanted to get back to narration. You and Juliano narrated the film, as did Sebastião, But your voice was very intriguing; there’s a sense of wonder in it. There’s something about the timbre of your voice that implies the magic and mystery of art. What was the process of creating that voice as a central character?
It was hard work because we did lots of narration and versions and then realized that the tone of voice was important for both of us. Juliano too had to learn to be another character in his voiceover because he’s a very fast talker and a very impatient talker; he had to learn to have a much more soothing voice. Both of our voices had to serve one purpose, which was to make Sebastião’s voice, as the main narrator of the film, and his photographs come out as good as possible.
Having made this film and having spent so much time with Salgado and getting to know his work much deeper, how has making this film impacted you as an artist going forward with your work?
[It has impacted me] in relation to his patience with these subjects and the immersement—and sometimes working for ten years on projects like Exodus or Workers. Or the radical approach to his work of going to a place and staying there and coming back over and over again, and living with these people under their conditions. That was a huge example of how far you can go in order to be close to something.
I watched him work and I watched him photograph. He has this uncanny ability to get close to people and be their friend, and not just to make them believe that he’s their friend, because many photographers can do that perfectly. Many photographers can be very charming.
But that’s not his thing. He becomes their equal and he’s really in their situation and he shares that space with people. He genuinely loves people more than anything else. [This is] somebody who has political and financial and economic insight into their situation, that together with an enormous care for people. That is quite unique.
Tom White is editor of Documentary.