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Film Wim Wenders on bringing the passionate work of photographer Sebastiao Salgado to the screen

From left, The Salt of the Earth directors Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and photographer Sebastiao Salgado.

Thierry Pouffary/Mongrel Media

In the celebrated, veteran, German-born director Wim Wenders's new film The Salt of the Earth, the renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado speaks with sometimes shattering immediacy – and directly to camera – about how he felt as he was photographing some of the most horrific places and circumstances in recent history: Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Kuwait. Via e-mail, Wenders spoke with The Globe about capturing the inner life of such a passionate witness.

Can you describe your first exposure to Salgado's work and why it made such a strong impression on you?

Ever since I walked into a photo gallery in Los Angeles and bought two prints of his. I framed them and they have been hanging over my work desk since. I saw an exhibition of Workers soon afterward. Ever since I have been an unconditional admirer of Sebastiao's work. I bought all his photo books. When I was asked who my favourite contemporary photographer was, I always answered: Sebastiao Salgado. But I had never met the man. So one day I decided to change that.

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You're both a photographer and filmmaker, so you are well aware of the distinctions between the two mediums. What struck you about Salgado's work and life as a potential film subject?

I think of Sebastiao's work as rather cinematic. If you go through Workers or Exodus for instance, you already see a big film in front of you. He always shot long sequences of pictures. These series resemble a narrative structure. There is montage, dramaturgy, and drama in epic proportions in all of his photos. But I knew there was a film when I realized that Salgado was not just a great photographer, but also a very gifted storyteller. Because he's not only a storyteller, he knows so much about each and every one of his journeys. Remember, he started out as an economist, and he knows all that political, economical and social background to his reportages.

Salgado has been charged, by Susan Sontag most famously, of creating work from suffering that is too beautiful. Even irresponsibly so. What do you make of this claim?

I couldn't disagree more. If you photograph misery and suffering, you need to give dignity to your subjects and refrain from voyeurism. Not easy. It can only be done if you work in deep solidarity with the people in front of your camera, really immerse yourself in their lives and situation. Not many photographers do that. Lots of them come and take a few quick pictures and are out again. But that's not how Sebastiao works. He spends time in all the situations he photographs, lives with these people, becomes friends with them, shares their lives as much as possible. And he is compassionate. He does his work for those people, to give them a voice. I think Sebastiao has dignified all the people in front of his camera. He tries to give them back the dignity that they often were forced to lose in those wars, those famines, those atrocities in which he found them. I take my hat off to this man! Or better: the film does.

I understand you did some more conventional on-camera interviews with Salgado before arriving at what you call the "dark room" concept. How did the film find its final form and structure?

It took a while. We first shot rather conventionally, for weeks, in traditional interview situations with multiple cameras, one on him and one on me, and another camera tight on the photographs we were talking about. Sometimes that was quite intense, and Sebastiao really got involved in the stories behind his photographs. But each time he would raise his eyes, he would be back in that interview situation and look at me and the cameras around us and the microphones in front of him. That always broke the spell. So, I more and more realized that I needed to come up with another "device" to have Sebastiao talk more freely and in a more intimate way about his photographs. He needed to really "disappear" inside each photo. So, I finally came up with the "dark room" concept. That's a familiar surrounding for a man who has for a long time developed and printed his work himself. In that dark room he saw nothing but his own photographs in front of him. Sebastiao looked at his photographs and spoke freely about them, undisturbed by anybody, and at the same time he was looking into the camera. I sat behind the camera, invisible to him, and could control the flow of his pictures on that screen. This was so much more emotional, for him and for all of us. Salgado was really digging deep. But I found that device by default.

What was your relationship with your subject like? Was he forthcoming about the pain of his past experiences, or did you have to coax his feelings?

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It wasn't easy for him. Like most of his photographer colleagues, he'd rather be on the other side of the camera. But he trusted us after a certain time. Sometimes it got very tough and he got overwhelmed by his memories. We had to stop shooting a few times and take a time out, both for us behind the camera and for him. And no, I never "coaxed" him. That is not my style of working, neither in fiction nor in documentaries.

One of the more unusual aspects of the film's making is the dynamic between yourself, Salgado and your co-director, who is also Salgado's son, and who grew up largely with his father absent. This could have been very challenging or awkward. How did it influence the process?

Juliano and I had decided early on to do this film together. We had this vague feeling that we could draw a more complete picture of the man if we looked at him from our two points of view: Juliano as the son who wanted to get to know his father, and me as a stranger, or as the friend I had started to become. We never shot together, though. It was only in the editing that we started to really work together. And that was difficult. For a few months we worked separately, in adjoining editing suites with two editors, but it wasn't working. Eventually, I started taking drastic measures. I let Juliano sit down and cut my material and vice versa. However, our next efforts failed just as miserably. And only deep into the editing process did we realize we both had to give up control and do the hardest thing we had ever done: forget who had shot what, sit down together with one editor make one film out of all of it. That finally produced results but, boy, had it been hard. In the end we had produced a much more complex picture of this man than either of us could have drawn.

I sense an affinity between you and Salgado that goes deeper than the work itself. In a way, you're both itinerant observers of the world. Is this a reasonable observation?

It makes sense. Getting to know somebody so closely changes your perspective on him as well as your view of yourself. I always thought of myself as a great traveller, but looking at Sebastiao's zigzags around the globe made my own journeys look pedestrian. Realizing the amount of time he invested into each visit, how deeply he immersed into each situation, really raised my esteem not only for his work, but the man himself.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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