Judy Gelman Myers, founder of Director Talk and contributor to American Photo, recently spoke with filmmakers Wim Wenders and and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the making of their Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Salt of the Earth.” The film, now playing nationwide, tracks iconic, globetrotting photographer Sebastião Salgado’s journey in the making of his series “Genesis.” Below is an excerpt from their interview.
Although many people are familiar with Sebastião Salgado’s incredible body of work documenting migrations, armed conflicts, starvation, and poverty, few realize that the work nearly killed him, in spirit if not in body. He was, as his son Juliano describes him, a “lost man.” Yet this nadir became a turning point for Sebastião when he was asked to take over the family farm in Brazil—land that had once been a tropical paradise but had become barren through deforestation. With Lelia, his life partner, by his side, the photographer took on a new goal: re-creating the forest of his childhood on the now arid land. They planted over 300 species of trees, and, miraculously, their efforts took. Sebastião and Lelia designated the newly flourishing rivers and hills a national park and called it Instituto Terra.
In the process, Salgado the photographer was rejuvenated. He began work on “Genesis,” an eight-year magnum opus documenting the incredible beauty of the planet, rather than its tragedies. Along the way, he asked film directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, his son, to accompany him on some of his “Genesis” trips. From these journeys, “Salt of the Earth” was born. The film joins Juliano’s “Genesis” footage with interviews Wenders conducted with Salgado in a dark room, through a two-way mirror, as the photographer analyzes his own work.
JGM: As soon as I saw the dark room device in Salt of the Earth, I thought of the two-way mirror in Paris, Texas.
WW: It is similar, yes. It’s on the same principle as a two-way mirror, where you can see through from one side and you can’t see through from the other. The mirror became an electronic screen that was still see-through, so Sebastião saw only his photographs; he did not see the camera that filmed him, which was the whole purpose. And I saw only his face; I didn’t see the photograph, but we had a record of which photograph he was looking at so we could superimpose it later.
So we’re actually watching Sebastião watching his photographs.
WW: Watching only his photographs. He didn’t see anything else. He didn’t know that by looking at his photographs, he was looking into the camera. He knew it theoretically, but he didn’t see the camera and he didn’t see me. I was behind the camera, and I was just operating the photographs, and whenever I realized he came to the end of having said enough about this picture, I switched to the next one.
How did you come up with that idea? It’s astonishing to see in action.
WW: It’s such a simple idea, and sometimes the simplest things you have to look for the longest. A lot of people shoot with teleprompters, of course. Every TV show is shot with a teleprompter, every newscaster uses it. But we’ve reversed the whole thing. I came to it by default. I shot with Sebastião in a conventional, classic way. For weeks we went through his entire body of work, sitting together at a table or standing at a wall looking at all his books and all his photographs. There were huge stacks of hundreds of photographs, and we went through the entire work, from his first mission and trip, to Genesis. We had two cameras. One camera was on the photographs and one camera was on him and me, so it was very conventional. I got to know his biography and his passage through the four, five big projects of his life.
At the end, when the producer thought, ‘Now we have it all in the can, Wim talked about every picture and now they should be finished,’ I realized this was only the beginning. I told the producer, ‘I’m sorry, now we have to start from scratch because none of this is good.’ Every day that we shot, I realized more and more that only every now and then I had something I was really happy with. Sebastião is a relatively self-conscious person in front of a camera. When he was looking at the photographs, once in a while he got involved and the memories came back, and he concentrated as long as he was looking at the picture. Then he would look up at me, and there was the camera and the sound engineer, and he started to perform. He told the story to me, but he was no longer in the memory. There was a difference to the quality of his stories when he forgot that we were there, but as soon as he remembered we were there, it became stiff. Eventually I thought, I want him to be able to just be like that and never see the cameras and forget that I am there and that I’m asking questions, but I didn’t know if there was a way to do it. And one night I had this idea—put him in a dark room so he doesn’t see anything but his own photographs. Then it dawned on me that the two-way mirror was the solution. The two-way mirror that you can project something onto as a teleprompter.
It was so brilliant.
WW: But it’s a simple idea, and from now on it can be used for lots of documentaries. Sometimes the simplest ideas need to be invented from scratch. Errol Morris has a similar invention where people can look at him directly. It’s different—it also uses a mirror, but in a different way.
You’re a photographer as well as a filmmaker, and you frequently play with the differences between black-and-white and color. Sebastião’s photographs, of course, are all black-and-white. Can you talk about your use of black-and-white and color in this film?
WW: I was going to mainly concentrate on talking about his work, and my part of the film was to establish his passage through his journeys and how he became a photographer and evolved as a photographer. As Sebastiao only shot black-and-white, I had my mind set from the beginning that I was going to film him in black-and-white because I didn’t want to cut back to a black-and-white picture [from color]. From the beginning Juliano was shooting these journeys in color, but in the end we weren’t so methodical about it, because slowly, in the course of all these talks and interviews, it dawned on me that there was a whole different life that Sebastiao and the family had. They started to talk amongst themselves about Brazil and the forest, and I slowly realized that there was something else to discover, not just the photography. Eventually he insisted that I go with him the next time he went to the Instituto Terra, and then I discovered really what had saved him as a person; his forest and nature had really saved him from the big hole he had fallen into in his life. I realized that what I shot with him in the forest and the whole last chapter of the film about the reforestation project didn’t quite make sense to stick to black-and-white because the glory of the forest was so much nicer in color. We weren’t rigid with the idea, so I shot also in color in Brazil.
Read the full interview on Director Talk.