In the Academy Award-nominated feature documentary “The Salt of the Earth,” co-director/co-writer Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, alongside veteran documentarian Wim Wenders (“Pina,” “Buena Vista Social Club”), follows his father, acclaimed Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, as he travels to some of most unblemished parts of the world to photograph immaculate landscapes. The film also revisits a lot of Salgado’s more harrowing work from his past when he would work in dangerous places like Rwanda and the Middle East.
During an interview with me at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, documentarian filmmaker Salgado talked about going on a long trip with his father to capture his process as a photographer and describes why he thinks his father is so good at what he does.
What was your father’s initial reaction when you told him you’d be going on this trip with him?
Well, actually, I didn’t want to go. He kind of forced me. I was really scared of being so close to him for such a long time. We had this complicated relationship and he had to force my hand so I could follow him into this Amazon. But it was a great experience.
What did he think about your work as a filmmaker and how you captured him as an artist?
When he saw the footage, he was very touched by it. When you film someone, it says a lot more about the person who is filming than the person who is being filmed. Sebastião saw how his son saw him. He was watching this footage I took of him and his eyes were full of tears. That was an intense moment for both of us.
What do you think it is about your father that makes him stand out from other photographers?
Sebastião has a massive capacity for adaptation. We would land on this airstrip that was in the middle of nowhere and walk two days to get to this village across forests and mountains. We would meet someone along the way and in 10 minutes, even though we didn’t speak the same language, there is already something happening between them. I think that’s the big difference between him and other photographers. He gets integrated into the communities and is capable of being a part of it really quickly. When he makes his photos, he’s not illustrating a fact. He’s photographing a relationship.
Is there anything specific you learned from your experience on this trip?
You know, what amazed me was that when we would go to these places and meet people, it couldn’t be more foreign and distant, but very quickly you realize that we are all the same. Even though you don’t speak the same language, you can joke with them. They have a concept of the outside world. You can have a great conversation with them.
It’s amazing that you were able to create these relationships with these natives without words. What did you find universal in your language?
(Laughs) You know, it’s funny because I remember at the end of the day one of the [natives] took this little piece of wood and started rubbing it with another piece of wood and smoke started coming from it. Then he put the stick on these dried out plants and made a fire. I’m there filming that thinking, “This is essential. This is humanity. This is the beginning of everything.” I was so touched. I felt I was filming this important moment. I was all emotional. Suddenly, they started doing something with their hands. I didn’t know what they’re doing. They started rolling these leaves and start smoking tobacco and chatting with their friends. I thought, “Oh, wow, these guys are doing what I do when I’m out of my editing room in Sao Paulo.” From there, that feeling of distance was gone.
When did you know your father had an occupation that wasn’t like most fathers?
When I was a little child, I knew my father was doing something unique. I would get that from my teachers and my parents’ friends. They would ask me where he was and would look at me astonished when I told them. So, I knew he was doing something that was different. When I was five, he brought home photos that depicted the death of children. I saw the pictures and he had to explain the world to me and tell me how the world was a different kind of reality than the one we had living in Paris. I always understood what he did played a good role somehow.
When you watch your father work and see how passionate he is about his craft, what does that do for you as an artist?
Watching him inspires me a lot. He travels to all these different places and has these different life experiences. His job was to be in between important events, which would become historical, and the audience. I felt his work was making a difference and allowing people to open up to the world. That’s why I set out to be a documentary filmmaker, however big or small.
Have you ever had conversations with your father about how photography has changed so much over the last few years through technology and how everyone who has a cell phone thinks they’re a photographer?
The technique has changed, but I think Sebastião isn’t very open-minded. When he realized he could get a better result with a digital camera, he went to digital. He’s not one of those guys who thinks the past is always better. The fact that everyone can make a photo nowadays is interesting, but it was like that before with Polaroids. Everyone would photograph with a Polaroid camera when we grew up. What has changed is that the important medium is not the newspapers anymore. The internet is the news media now. Maybe photographs have lost their impact in this way.
Have you ever seen your father take a selfie?
No, he hates selfies. He doesn’t get that. I’ve tried to take a selfie with him before, but you can tell he’s forcing a smile.