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"The Salt of the Earth" Juliano Ribeiro Salgado Honors His Father

By: Laura Blum

NEW YORK, NY - Photographer Sebastiaõ Salgado has spent more than four decades covering labor, exodus, famine and strife from some of the farthest flung reaches of the globe. The irony is: Although his images are instantly recognizable, the face that captured them often is not.

That's changing, thanks to the engrossing new documentary The Salt of the Earth. Directed by Wim Wenders in collaboration with Sebastiaõ's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (as seen in photos 1 & 2) the film explores Salgado père's shoots from such pointed earthscapes as the Serra Pelada mine in his native Brazil to blood-drenched former Yugoslavia. It also shows why, covering Rwanda in the mid-90s, Salgado had to rethink his subject matter.

With his wife Lélia, he began experimenting with replanting trees in the Salgado's drought-ravaged farm. The resulting initiative, “Instituto Terra,” has since reforested swaths of Brazil’s Mata Atlantica and is being applied elsewhere around the globe. As we see in the film, Salgado junior ventured out with his father on eco-shoots to Siberia's Wrangel Island and the highlands of Papua New Guinea, among other green removes.

The Salt won Un Certain Regard's Special Prize trophy at this year's Cannes Film Festival. And more recently it was the opening night film at the Rio International Film Festival. There, a coconut's throw from Copacabana's famed shore, sat down with Juliano Salgado to discuss this three-year production, family dynamics and why Sebastiaõ refocused his lens from man-made conflict to pristine nature.

thalo: If photography was Sebastiaõ's baby, is this film a way of making him a more present father?

Juliano Salgado: My story of my dad is that, ever since I was born, he was away six months a year. I really missed him a lot. It was sometimes painful and hard. But there's something very special about him, and every time he came back he had so many things to tell about his experiences. There was a lot of love in how he would try to teach me. I grew up in Paris, so I was in a very protected environment. But for him the world was something else. It was something he was experimenting with -- in South America, in proxy wars in Africa and all around -- so he had a lot to give me to be ready for that other world that I wasn't experiencing at the time. When he was back, he was very close.

th: Given that he's often pictured in the film establishing rapport with his subjects, do you feel a little left out?

JS: It was painful that Sebastiaõ traveled so much. Something had strained our relationship, that feeling of missing him as a kid, that feeling of not being looked after so much. And suddenly seeing the movie and understanding what it was for him to be in those places and the kind of man he was out there...

th: What kind of man was he out there?

JS: What's really amazing about him is that he meets these subjects who are not subjects; they become friends, and he's got this emotion about them.

th: What's Sebastiaõ's secret to cultivating the trust of the people he's photographing?

JS: Sebastiaõ speaks to everyone. He's friendly. Anywhere Sebastiaõ is he doesn't judge people, maybe because he comes from such a fucked up place, himself. He grew up in the far West, in a very underdeveloped part of Brazil with little law, and he had to leave his home when he was 15 to go study in the big city. The reality he comes from is much closer to the reality he was traveling to later in his life. He's not a European or American who will arrive a pre-conceived idea of himself that he doesn't belong there. Sebastiaõ thinks he belongs there. Also, he explains what he's doing. It's relatively simple with photographers, because you know when they take their camera out, what they're looking at. So it's a bond that comes from a trust that you're not being exposed for what's worst in you, that the person who is with you is trying to bring a nicer light.

th: How did your relationship evolve during the making of the film?

JS: The film created a relationship of intimacy. At the beginning of the film we went separate ways and our communication wasn't so good. At the end, something happened: We became friends. At some point in the editing, my gaze on Sebastiaõ changed.

th: How so?

JS: I think I understood him better -- who he is, how he travels, how he met these people, what he learned, how much he suffered, how much of a visceral necessity it was for him to do these photos because he had a role to play and he was so committed to it. It's all a question of maturity, and this film helped me mature a lot.

th: To what extent did your father share the art and science of photography with you when you were a kid?

JS: One of my strongest memories of Sebastiaõ is the tick of the printer and the strong smell of acids. He had rented maid's quarters on the seventh floor, two floors above our flat, and turned it into a printing lab. My dad was that artist who would come back and spend ages selecting that picture. When I was five I knew about composition. When I was seven I got a Sure Shot camera. I knew about optics when I was 12. So I was really raised in this thing. That's part of what he passed on to me.

th: What have you learned from your father's signature black-and-white style that shows up in your color cinematography?

JS: Sebastiaõ has this beautiful black-and-white composition, those crazy skies, the graying, all these symbolic, semi-mythological things. I was very influenced by Sebastiaõ because I grew up watching his pictures. In terms of compositions, when I was 16 he took me to see some places for the Workers series -- the construction of a canal in Rajasthan (and elsewhere in India), pre-genocide Rwanda and (the Channel Tunnel of) La Manche -- but for me the black and white doesn't work. I love color (as seen in photos 3 and 4).

th: Who are your father's artistic influences?

JS: He loves J.M.W. Turner and Rembrandt, those painters who have those beautiful skies and sun rays. He was very influenced by social photographers, like Robert Frank.

th: What was the concept behind filming your father so that viewers see both the work and the artist's reflected image?

th: This is completely Wim's idea. One day we were in Paris and suddenly he comes and says, "Listen, guys, we're going to shoot in an hour and we need a teleprompter and a studio; I have an idea!" We're like, "Huh?" It was mayhem. The whole idea of shooting through the teleprompter was that Sebastiaõ doesn't see the team, which allows him to abstract from the studio and to be back in his memories. When we found out that we could tell Sebastiaõ 's story in 90 minutes through his experiences, that's when we realized we had a film. We could see how he learns to travel, how he develops his talents, how he meets and blends with people living terrible things and how he manages through his photography to bring their message out to the world. He creates a place for himself; he finds a function that's real and powerful for him. The difficulty was: How can we make it a subjective cinematic experience about memory? How can we involve the audience into living something with the character, though that thing has happened years before? That's the idea of the reflected image.

th: How did you come to incoporate the dark side of Sebastiaõ's arc, and what comes to mind when you consider his full story?

JS: We decided with Sebastiaõ that we can tell the story of how he goes one step too far and breaks down completely, and how he has to reinvent himself. I would say this is the myth of the phoenix, because at some point in the film Sebastiaõ can't protect himself enough and he's broken down from what he sees because of the way he blends with people. He doesn't have enough distance, and then reinvents his trajectory as an artist and finds a way to be in the symbolics of life. Before he was in another kind of symbolics.

th: Going from human tragedy to untouched nature, how has he changed his modus operandi with the environmentally-themed Genesis project?

JS: At some point he has to be completely blending with something that's growing: 2.5 million trees planted. Through this project he tries to be in contact with what's beautiful. If you complete his arc as an artist -- though he wouldn't agree with this -- he goes from being a journalist who documents other people's lives and injustices to, at the point when he's doing Genesis, just trying to share his artistic vision. He's not trying to expose facts any more.

th: How does the story of the Minas Gerais farmland where Sebastao grew up parallel his own story of renewal?

JS: The land itself recalls the phoenix. That land was completely dried out, and years later Sebastiaõ is an older man and he's back on the land that was a forest when he was a kid. The trees were cut by his dad so that he could raise his kids, give them food to eat, send them to school. Like anyone else in the region, he destroyed his land completely. So years later Sebastiaõ is back and the forest is back and the land is reborn. There's something of a cycle, but something also of a renaissance, of people, of himself -- how he managed to revive this land that was dead.

th: Far from just sharing an artistic vision, could we say he's on the frontlines of new kind of combat, to protect nature?

JS: It's not incompatible. Now he goes to places and he's blending with animals, landscapes.

th: Susan Sontag critcized Sebastiaõ of making a spectacle out of human tragedy, for Western audiences. What's your response?

JS: She said that he doesn't give people's names and that the hero of Sebastiaõ's photography is Sebastiaõ and not his characters. But she also talks about the aestheticization of misery. I think it's a fair criticism about our consumer society. Magazines inform, but at the same time they sell whatever it is that they have in their advertising pages. It's a bit shocking and we should be aware of that. But this criticism that it's too beautiful has to do with some kind of guilt complex thing. Sebastiaõ knows where to put the camera in a way that this emotion is going to be in the picture. Through the prints they're passed down to us, the audience, to have this emotion that's still lively. I think that's his real talent.

But this criticism of capitalizing on human tragedy is very unfair to Sebastiaõ. For example, most photographers who went to Ethiopia would arrive on the first airplane of the morning and would leave on the last airplane to bring their stuff back. Sebastiaõ would stay there two, three months and he wasn't exploiting those images. He was living with the people that he would meet. But because he's so exposed and he's such a symbol of that kind of photography, it's normal that he would harness acclaim but also that criticism.

th: The film highlights your parents' remarkable partnership. How would you describe your mother's role?

JS: They have always done everything together. Lélia and Sebastiaõ met in Vitória, Espiritu Santo, where she's from and where he was attending school, and went to Sao Paolo and got married there. They went to France together. Then they decided together that he was going to abandon his career as an economist and become a photographer. She was the one making money for a long time and putting bread on the table. Now that Sebastiaõ is so successful, they decide on the concepts of the reportage and on the places he's going to go; they choose the shots together; she designs and exhibits the books. You could say that Sebastiaõ Salgado is really two people, Lélia and Sebastiaõ.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: Photo of Wim Wenders (left) with Sebastião Salgado, courtesy of © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images.

Photo 2:  Photo of Juliano Selgado by Ivi Roberg, courtesy of © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images.

Photo 3: Sebastião Salgado in the documentary The Salt of the Earth. Courtesy of © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images.

Photo 4: Sebastião Salgado in the documentary The Salt of the Earth. Photo by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, courtesy of © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images.