Documentary, Fine Art, Landscape

Sebastião Salgado: “I had travelled to the dawn of time.”

©Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images, Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

The iconic documentary photographer, named Master of Photography at Photo London, on new biopic The Salt of the Earth, directed by his son Juliano and the German director Wim Wenders

Sebastião Salgado has created some of the twentieth century’s most iconic photography. From war zones to famine, genocide to exodus, Salgado has documented many of the world’s major events of the last 40 years in crisp black-and-white pictures. He’s also won countless prizes, including being named last week as a Master of Photography at Photo London this weekend.

Now, in homage to the great photographer, the German filmmaker Wim Wenders and Salgado’s Paris-based son Juliano Salgado have collaborated on a documentary about the photographer’s life and work. The film, The Salt of the Earth, has already won a host of accolades, including an Oscar nomination, and will be released this July.

In the film, Sebastião discusses some of his most famous photographs. When talking of the captivating images of 50,000 gold-grubbers scaling ladders like ants into an the Serra Pelada mine in Brazil, he says: “Every hair on my body stood on edge. The Pyramids, the history of mankind unfolded. I had travelled to the dawn of time.”

He discusses his hellish images of burning oilrigs in Kuwait and the heart-wrenching pictures of the Rwandan genocide. This footage is mixed with on-site documentary film of Sebastião shooting his most recent photo-series, Genesis.

Juliano tells how they captured the candid shots of his father: “We started filming with Sebastião and I side-by-side in a room discussing his photographs, but he was very self conscious of being filmed. So, Wim had this excellent idea. He put Sebastião in a soundproof room, and all he could see was his photographs, which were projected before him, with the camera hidden behind a one-way mirror. This got a very powerful response, and Wim didn’t actually interview him, he just changed the pictures. Sebastião is very passionate telling the stories, and it’s almost as if we were back there with him. The stories come back and suddenly you’re living in the moment.”

The main narrative of the film is one of redemption and hope. As Juliano describes, when Sebastião returned from Rwanda in 1994, he was mentally and physically unwell. “Sebastião got sick when he returned from Rwanda, he was very tense, very unhappy, you could see there was something really troubling happening to him”.

He had lost hope in humanity, and needed a change of direction, which sparked the creation of Genesis, a project that aimed to discover the pristine territories of the globe; grandiose landscapes and wild nature – a photographic tribute to the planet’s beauty.

He also established the Instituto Terra with his wife Leila at their ranch in Brazil in 1998. A former cattle ranch inherited from Salgado’s father, the land had become barren from over farming, so they embarked on a project to return it to its natural subtropical state as a rainforest. The land has now totally recovered, and is now established as a national park named  Instituto Terra.

As Juliano explains: “I am optimistic for us humans. When the Instituto Terra started there was a lot of resistance, but after years the people’s mentality has changed. It shows that when you have people that decide to act in their immediate environment, you can actually make a difference.”

Another theme in the film is the relationship between father and son. When Juliano was growing up, his father was often away on long trips, travelling the globe for his work. Leila lived in Brazil with their two children, Juliano and Rodrigo – who has Down’s Syndrome, but Sebastião would often go away for “one, two, three, four months at a time” because he didn’t have the money to return regularly from his trips.

In order to try to rectify their relationship, Juliano decided to accompany his father on some of his adventures to photograph Genesis. We see them visiting Inuit tribes in Alaska, and filming great walruses in the Arctic Circle.

“Sebastião and I had a really tense relationship at the beginning of the film,” Juliano said. “At first I didn’t want to travel with my father, but my aunt persuaded me, and it was an incredible experience.

“When I got back to Paris, I edited the footage and showed him, and something amazing happened. When you film someone it says a lot more about the person filming than the person being filmed, you can tell how they’re thinking. So when I showed Sebastião, he got very emotional. It was a very touching moment that opened the door to our relationship again.”

The Salt of the Earth, and indeed Sebastião’s overarching oeuvre, is about his personal philosophy of humanism and equality. Whether photographing the untouched Yali tribe in the depths of the Papua New Guinean jungle, or his own wife, he treats all of his subjects with the same understanding and compassion.

As Juliano explains: “This film came 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 witnessed humanity confronting some terrible events.

“He sees people and he does not judge them. He puts himself on the same level as them. 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.”

Find out more about the film here.