WIM WENDERS STARTS his latest documentary, Salt of the Earth, with photos that document an astonishing number of workers in a gold mine in Serra Pelada, Brazil. Thousands of miners are crowded in an open pit, hundreds of metres below the surface. As Wenders observes in voice-over, the workers have to run downhill to become part of this mass, grimly determined to extract gold or die in the process. Yet the photos that illustrate this hellish scene are eerily beautiful, somehow preserving the dignified suffering of these workers while also capturing pictorial qualities evocative of Hieronymus Bosch, as a mass of humanity appears in a losing struggle against a landscape that is sure to defeat them.
This set of photographs, one of which Wenders owns, was shot by the photographer whom many consider to be the best currently making work, Sebastião Salgado. Over the course of a 45-year career, Salgado has shot indelible images in Rwanda during the civil war, Latin America in crisis during the ’70s and the drought-laden area of Sahel, in the southernmost region of the Saharas. He has shot images of workers fighting to keep their jobs and way of life in doomed industries. Withal, he has emphasized the profound humanity of the individuals he’s shot, never exploiting them.
In Salt of the Earth, Wenders and his co-director, the photographer’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, have recounted the story of this visual artist, who has captured images which express the tragedies, ironies and comedies of humanity in the present day.
POV was able to speak to Sebastião Salgado in early February when he came to Toronto for the opening of a show of his work Genesis at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery.
POV: Marc Glassman | Salgado: Sebastião Salgado
POV: How has your original background as an economist informed your work as a photographer?
Salgado: My wife and I teach at a school of photography in Japan, in Tokyo, and one thing that I tell the young people is to go to university and study a bit of anthropology, a little bit of sociology, a bit of economy—geopolitics—in order to understand their society. I had this big chance to be an economist, but what is economy? The kind of economy that I worked with—macroeconomy, political economy—is quantified sociology. That meant a lot for my understanding of society. When you go to photograph, you have to understand what it is you are photographing. When you go to a country, you must know a little bit of the economy of this country, of the social movements, of the conflicts, of the history of this country—you must be part of it. And when you have the opportunity at the university for this compact preparation, you have much better tools than others that don’t have them. I know this because I worked for many press agencies—I worked for Gamma, Sygma, and for 15 years in Magnum—and my colleagues that had this university preparation were much better, had better tools than the others. That means economics for me was essential: it gave me the opportunity to do an analysis, a synthesis of the situations I wanted to photograph.
POV: We’re about the same age, and of course I remember the time of the 1960s and the radicalism that many of us had in this period. The photographer Gordon Parks once said that with the camera he had found the choice of the proper weapon for what he was going to do. It wasn’t to kill people but it was to expose what was wrong in the world—for him it was segregation. I’m wondering whether for you, especially in those early years, you were trying to make a critique.
Salgado: I came from an underdeveloped country with huge social problems, and with a lot of injustice that happened, because we had no chance to protect our products. I’m from a region that produces a lot of iron ore in Brazil, which is a huge country with a lot of natural resources. When I was a child, 70 tons of iron ore was exported for 70 dollars. Today, the price for one ton is around 80 dollars, and a few days ago it was a hundred and twenty dollars a ton. Compare that to the price of oil, what the price of oil was for many years. When you see a kilo of coffee, the guy who is working, producing the coffee—he goes to work at seven or six in the morning, he works until the end of the day, 12 hours a day, sometimes more—he has no shoes, his kid has no education, he doesn’t have proper housing, he doesn’t have a car or a bank account, and yet he works as hard as anyone here. The difference is that the product he produces has no value. The value of these products was not fixed where they were produced; they were fixed in Chicago, in London, where we fix the prices of all material products, and we always gave a negative price. It wasn’t a positive price because these guys pay with their health, the education of their children, with no housing. This is where I came from, and when I made my pictures, when I show the people from my side of the planet in my pictures, I show their dignity. I show that they work like we work, that they love like we love, that they live nice lives like we have nice lives here. That we can understand that we are the same.
POV: When you were growing up, did the Cinema Novo movement mean much to you?
Salgado: Glauber Rocha and his comrades, they meant a lot to me, because it was front-line contested cinema. But, hear me, much of these guys’ work, like my photography, was not made because these people were activists, it was made because it was their way of life—you live like this, your ideology is this, and your language is photography or cinema, and your life comes from that.
POV: Could you talk about your book Other Americas? It feels very much informed by this time and this meaning of what work is like and what life is like in South and Central America.
Salgado: It’s a good question for you to ask, because on Friday I am going back to Paris, and Monday I am going to Italy to reprint Other Americas. Thirty years after, we are having the book come out again—it will be published in New York by Aperture Foundation, in France, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, Brazil. Other Americas for me was very special. You see, I left Brazil in 1969, and I was forbidden from returning to my country because of the dictatorship they took away our passports. In a month, I already had a huge wish to go back to Brazil, but there was no way, so I started to go to the neighbouring countries—they were not quite the same as Brazil, but they looked like it—so I went to Paraguay, to Bolivia, to Peru, Ecuador, and after a while I went to the others—to Guatemala, Mexico—and eventually to almost all of Latin America. And I went to see them, I lived with them, I went to their mountains and valleys. And at that time I had no money to hire a car or to stay in big hotels. I went by bus; I worked of my life. I spent long months then, because I had no money to go and then come back.
POV: I was thinking about how your wife Lélia gave you a camera, and I’m wondering what your reaction was—was it just immediate love?
Salgado: Let me tell you one thing: she never gave me a camera. I stole it from her. It’s a bit different. Lélia was studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the school of architecture, and it was necessary for her to buy a camera to take pictures of architecture. We bought this camera, and I looked inside it, and my life completely changed. It became my camera. I started to use it and photography made a total invasion in my life. Probably if she had not bought this camera, it would never have happened, because that was very late in my life. I was 27 years old when I first looked through the viewfinder of a camera and took a picture. Who knows? When I was a child, we started to have huge inflation in Brazil—2,000 per cent a year, an amazing amount—and a lot of farmers sold their farms. And when they sold their farms, two or three years later the money would not be enough to buy a bicycle. And my father told me, “Sebastião, if I had sold this farm when you were a kid, you wouldn’t be a famous photographer in Paris—we would probably be living in a slum in Belo Horizonte.” And perhaps if she hadn’t bought the camera, it wouldn’t have happened either.
POV: Did you soon find a camera that would be your friend or companion on your trips, when you went back to South America?
Salgado: Absolutely. At that time, I worked with Leicas. Small camera, few lenses—a Leica doesn’t need many lenses. With the viewfinder camera, you have three lenses—I had a 28-, a 35-, and a 50-mm. Two cameras, three lenses, my film: that’s it. I was free, for months. I had a huge package of film. I bought the cans of film that they use for the cinema—the 35mm Tri-X film—and a box of films carried 22 rolls of film. So I had 22 rolls of film with me. When they were finished, I took them out and rolled the films inside this aluminum tape that was kept in the kitchen to protect them against the humidity. They were rolled into one, the 22 films rolled inside the large can, and they were protected.
POV: When did you switch to digital?
Salgado: Very recently, in 2008. After what happened in New York in 2001, airport security started to change, and in a month it became hell. I remember once, after working in Guatemala, I lost 52 rolls of film because of the X-rays at the airport. So I changed to digital, but I don’t know how to edit on a computer. So what happened was that I had my assistants produce a contact sheet for me. I edit with a loupe like I always did, and when I edit they produce a work print like I always did, and when I make my final selection, we produce a negative from the digital archive in a quality that is better than when I photographed directly with a negative camera. From this archive, we introduce the grain from the Tri-X film that I worked with my whole life, and they produce for me a 4×5-inch negative, then we go to the enlarger and we print again.
POV: And now you print it out, it will still be silver nitrate, if you want it to be silver nitrate…
Salgado: Yeah. We print from an enlarger, with the grain of the film I’ve used all of my life, and I don’t lose any grain. Digital is flat, and when I put the Tri-X grain in, I have my life there, the texture that I have always worked with.
POV: Like Other Americas, Workers was a massive project that eventually resulted in a book. Can you tell me about the roots of the project?
Salgado: When I did Workers, I was an economist and a Marxist. The working class for me was the most important element of industrial and agricultural production. In economy you create a function of production with capital, technology and labour. But labour created capital, and technology is the materialization of millions, billions of hours of the movement of workers. What is a robot? When a robot goes to mount a piece, it’s the movement of the arm of the worker that created the machine. That technology is born from the worker—the worker is the most important part of the production function.
Then we started to see that the quality of work started to change, because you had intelligent machines that started to come to the production line. Robots are what? They’re computers. Everything started to change in production. It was not that the working class disappeared, but that it was no longer the same working class—the work was specialized, the workers were younger and trained on these machines. And we started to see that, for example, in France, a huge amount of the steel industry disappeared, and it reappeared in China or Brazil. The production of cars—before, a car was a screw-by-screw handmade object. Every part of the car was handmade. No more. The robot would lift this part, put in a bolt, put it back—no longer even a man sitting in a machine controlled these things.
We started to see these things happen, and my wife and I conceived of a book that would be an homage to the working class, in the age when it was no longer possible to see the work involved in producing a rope without watching it being displaced geographically to India, to China, to Brazil. I spent five years on this project—I had a huge identification with it.
POV: With Genesis, which you’ve been working on for the past decade, there’s a real change in your photography and your subject matter. Now you’re looking at nature and ecology, whereas before you were working at the means of production, always with a radical critique. How do you feel about what you’re shooting now and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Salgado: When I was finishing the shooting of Migration, I participated in a few stories that were very dramatic in my life—mostly in Rwanda, where I saw the brutality and the violence. I started to become very sick—my doctor said, “Sebastião, if you don’t stop, you will die.” So in a month, we stopped and went back to Brazil, and at this time my parents were becoming very old. I am the only man in a family of eight; I have seven sisters. My parents made the decision, with the agreement of my sisters, to keep the farm for me—the farm that I grew up on, the farm that was very important to my life.
So we received this farm, but when we did, it was ecologically destroyed. And my wife said, “Sebastião, you always told me that you grew up in a paradise—let’s rebuild the paradise. Let’s plant the rainforest that was here before.” And we started an environmental project. We had to plant more than two million trees, because it was a huge area. And we built this project. Now, I go back to hear the birds, feel the water, see the trees. I was so enthusiastic about this, which came from my great wish to see the most pristine part of the planet.
I thought that the planet had just a few pristine places left. But in the end, after research, I discovered that 46 per cent of the planet is [the same] as the day of Genesis. We worked for over eight years—I say ‘we’ because my wife was with me most of the time—and I photographed the nature, I photographed the other animals, and I discovered that everything is alive. A landscape is alive; this mountain is as alive as I am; all of these trees are as alive as I am—very alive, very rational. They are inside a live system that includes them. And that, for me, during those eight years, was the fabulous discovery of Genesis, but it is not that I became a landscape photographer or an animal photographer. Parallel to this, I was photographing another story, a completely human story—the book will be coming out in May—about coffee. I photographed for it in 2002, and I finished at the end of 2014.