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Sebastiao Salgado

Wim Wenders on Sebastião Salgado

The German auteur discusses his decades-long obsession with the renowned social photographer

Sebastião Salgado earned a rep as one of the century’s most renowned social photographers of human hardship before he felt he had to give it up. New documentary Salt of the Earth looks at why, spanning years of startling black-and-white images from the infernal other-worldliness of a Brazilian gold mine to Gulf War fires and his refocus on shooting – and replanting – nature, with his environmental reforestation project to reverse human destruction. The soul-stirring film is a collaboration between German director Wim Wenders and Sebastião’s son Juliano, who joined his father on journeys to the Arctic Circle, the home of the Yali tribe in Papua New Guinea, and other remote places as he sought to understand and reconnect with a father who’d been often absent. In Riga for the award show of the European Film Academy, of which he’s president, and a special screening of the film, Wenders told us what he learned from his long relationship with the Brazilian artist’s pictures.


“I’ve made a number of films about other creative professions – about designer Yohji Yamamoto and choreographer Pina Bausch, and now I’m making one about Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. You can’t really travel to unknown places anymore because someone has been there before, but in your imagination you can. I like when people do that and I’m very curious how creativity works in other fields. The act of creation is the great adventure left in the 21st Century, so I look at them as adventure movies.”


“My first encounter with Sebastião Salgado was a quarter of a century ago. I didn’t know his name, but in a gallery in downtown Los Angeles I saw a series of his pictures of this gold mine. I’d just been walking by when these caught my attention, and I was completely blown away. I sensed there was someone at work who had an extraordinary eye, and was an extraordinary adventurer. I do collect photographs but not that many, but I knew I wanted one of these. I found my favourite, in which you see the craziness of the entire mine, and these thousands of people working there. This one man has taken a rest and is standing there, leaning against a pole. It reminded me very much of a Dutch painting of Saint Sebastian. He looked almost like a holy figure; it was truly an amazing photograph. I’ve always kept it with me. And eventually I had to know who this photographer was. It all started with this one picture and the fact I had known it so well – when you’ve had one photograph over your desk for 20 years it becomes a very, very good friend.”


“Of course it happens in the course of every film that sometimes you cannot get the shot you had in mind – because of bad weather, or whatever. The funny sequence in the film with the polar bear was shot by Sebastião’s son. They spent two weeks in a little cell, eating sardines from a box because they couldn’t get out while the bear was roaming around. Killing the polar bear was the last thing they would’ve done. They had to wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. But they did get one extraordinary shot of sea lions at the very end. And Juliano is very patient. As a filmmaker I am not that patient – I wouldn’t sit there for two weeks. I would shoot the damn bear. For me a worse problem than not being able to get a shot is when you do get it and realise afterwards that you don’t need it – you like it very much, but realise in the editing room that this thing that is so precious is an obstacle. If you take it out, everything works better. If you have it and then have to throw it away, that’s tougher.”


“Salgado had always believed that his photography had a function. His whole ethos had been that he served the people he photographed, gave them a voice and helped raise awareness. As long as he could maintain that belief it was protection for his heart, and allowed him to witness and endure very, very tough things. It was only in Rwanda when it was not useful anymore – when he realised he could photograph as much as he wanted and these hundreds of thousands of people were going to disappear – that he had to stop. I think that’s the first time he really couldn’t overcome it, even if before he’d had to lay his camera down for a long while when he returned home with soul-sickness inside. If you lose belief that your work has a purpose the only choice is to become cynical, and he’d said that’s the last thing he wanted in his life. Stopping was in effect the only alternative.”


“One thinks of photographers as people who travel somewhere, jump off the plane, take pictures for a day or two and then go home again. Most contemporary journalists work like this – they cover a war or crisis, fly in in the evening and fly straight out again after taking their pictures. I’m impressed that Sebastião invested so much time. He always remained in these places for weeks or months, so he earned his right to do photographs in a different way than others. I was also really impressed by his radical approach – not many people, when they realise they’ve come to an end of something, actually stop. This man had a great career once at the World Bank, then started from scratch with photographs, and then when he was a world-renowned photographer, stopped. The fact he continued to take pictures is only because he turned his attention to something very, very different. He never became a social photographer again, but he learned how to photograph nature because it saved him from his depression and desperation. As did this idea that you can actually plant a rainforest – this idea of his wife Lélia’s became such a revelation. They’ve started a project now to plant 250 million trees in that entire area of the river in Brazil where he grew up, so a little idea sometimes can have huge consequences.”