Sebastião Salgado is one of the world’s most distinguished photographers. The 70-year-old Brazilian known for hundreds of powerful black and white pictures featuring striking use of light and space, has travelled in over 100 countries for dozens of projects, publications and exhibitions.
The career of the veteran artist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador is explored in feature film The Salt of the Earth, which is currently playing in Australian cinemas and received an Oscar nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. It was co-directed by Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and legendary European filmmaker Wim Wenders. I spoke to Juliano about Sebastião’s incredible art, reconnecting with his father to make The Salt of the Earth and his fractious relationship with Wenders.
Sebastião’s work is full of rich and emotional images. At what age did you recognise your father’s talents and what impact did his pictures have on you when you were growing up?
I remember when I was really young and small, like four years old. I remember the reaction from my parent’s friends when they were looking at new photographs my father was showing them. The reaction from these people was astonishment and amazement, so I always knew what he was doing was special. But the first time I really realised what it was about was when he came back from his trip to Brazil, with those terrible photos of kids being starved and traumatised. I was about five and a half years old and I remember Sebastião explaining one of these pictures, telling me what it was about and what was happening there. He found the words to be able to say these things to a five-year-old boy. As a result I’ve always been very conscious that there was something he was doing there that could somehow help change these things, the situations we see in the photographs. I felt very lucky to grow up in this environment.
Working on a film and following a subject in the way that you have in The Salt of the Earth often creates a meaningful relationship between the filmmaker and the person they are photographing. What sort of impact did it have on your relationship with your father?
Before I was making the film we barely spoke to each other and when we spoke to each other it was difficult. There were arguments. Wim Winders was invited to be part of this film because there was no way I could have interviewed Sebastião about his past experiences because of that bad relationship we had. Wim was around and accepted that invitation. A lot of interview footage was shot and when I saw it through Wim’s eyes, in these very long rough cuts of Sebastião’s stories, I suddenly realised all of the things he went through. The terrible experiences and the beautifully things; I realised them through those rushes. That somehow sorted out our relationship. When we met again in Paris after initial filming that was it. It was enough for me to change and we were friends.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that while making The Salt of the Earth you and Wim Wenders fought a lot. What kind of things did you argue about?
We had a lot of problems, particularly in editing. When you’re editing a movie some of how you construct it comes from a gut feeling. It can be very hard to share that with another person. That was basically what happened to us. It was a bit of that and a bit of ego as well. There were a lot of both of those things. Sensitive things and ego things. We had to overcome that. It was a year of fights. The trick for me wasn’t to look at Wim Wenders as an elite of film school. He was not a legend of European cinema. He was just a guy I was working with and that was surprising for him. I don’t think he was used to that but it was the only way of doing it.
The photograph of Sebastião’s I find most striking is the image of Canadian firefighters in Kuwait trying to seal an oil well (below). One of them has his palms up and his hands open. I look at that picture and find it a very emotional one. But I’m not sure exactly why it is emotional or where the power of that image comes from. How do you think Sebastião finds such strong emotional connections?
When Sebastião’s travels he spends a lot of time in the communities he visits. He establishes bonds. He is very good at that. When it comes to moments of photography, it’s a real talent that he can intrinsically put the camera in a place where you will feel the emotion that’s coming from people, an intimate relationship. When you’re watching his pictures you’re not watching information, you’re watching a person. That is a big difference. That is why his pictures are powerful and sometimes disturbing. Unlike news pictures, you can’t create a distance from them. That’s where the power comes from. Not from the black and white, or even the composition. It’s his intimacy with his subjects.