Juliano Salgado’s documentary on the life of his famous photojournalist father, Sebastião Salgado

“I’m not an artist. An artist makes an object. Me, it’s not an object, I work in history, I’m a storyteller.”

These are the words of the famous photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. Salgado, born and raised in Minas Geraid, Brazil, is one of the world’s most prolific photojournalists. He travels the world to document impoverished and unknown people, as well as the beauty and magnificence of nature, in analogue black-and-white photographs.

But what is the story of the man behind the camera who has dedicated his life and career to telling the stories of others? Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado, tells his father’s story through the medium of a documentary, The Salt of the Earth.

On February 4, the Nanovic and Kroc Institutes co-sponsored a screening of Salgado’s documentary at the Browning Cinema as part of the ScreenPeace Film Festival. That morning, Salgado met with 10 Notre Dame students for an informal breakfast to talk about his film.

Several students asked Salgado how he succeeded in the film industry and how he was able to create a documentary about his own father. Salgado stated that it was difficult to make it to where he is today, but he emphasized that hard work and focusing on something meaningful will always yield success. Making a documentary about his father seemed fitting, because he wanted to give the world a moving picture of his father’s still-picture career.

The Salt of the Earth is a beautifully crafted film that contains both black-and-white and color cinematography. Much of the film is made up of Sebastião’s own photos with voiceovers. Salgado and his co-director, Wim Wenders, took an intimate approach in constructing their piece of art about an artist.

During the interviews in the film, Sebastião looks at photos he has taken while he is asked questions. While looking directly at his work, he answers truthfully and passionately. The film relates Sebastião’s start in the photographing industry, how he and his wife managed and came up with photograph theme collections, his life taking adventurous photos, how his family dealt with his constant absence, and the effect his work had on him, his family, and the world.

Juliano Salgado and Wim Wender’s documentary has won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Dublin International Film Festival, and many others. The film has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 2015.

During the breakfast, students asked Salgado how he managed to work on the same documentary for three consecutive years and how he knew it would be such a success. He answered that an aspiring documentarian should always be working on a documentary, whether a small or a large production, and one should expose and explore a topic of great personal interest, as well as a subject that may need a voice to bring notice to its story.

Salgado said an artist truly gifted in his craft only begins to achieve and see his creative ability, power, and skill once he is at least 40 years old. The longer we live, the more we understand both others and ourselves.

Interestingly, the documentary tells the story of Sebastião’s success through the lens of both a son and an admirer. Quite endearingly, the documentary displays Lélia Salgado’s great involvement and inspiration to the success of her husband’s work. Sebastião and Lélia are not only husband and wife, they are also creative partners. They work closely on developing each of his projects and have been happily married throughout his career.

Lélia studied architecture and, on a whim, bought a camera in order to better understand structures. Although Sebastião was an economist, he became extremely interested in his wife’s camera and began to use it often. The first photograph he ever took was of Lélia. Together, Sebastião and Lélia realized that he had a vocation to tell human stories about ever-changing events through photography.

Sebastião’s prolific work has allowed him to inform others about numerous international conflicts, cases of country-wide starvation and poverty, and other areas in need of human-rights regulation. He has raised large sums of money for humanitarian foundations through the sale of his photos, which start at $5,000 and sell for extremely high prices.

Salgado mentioned that it was rather hard to make a film about an artist who is himself always behind the lens rather than the subject of his photos. “The first movement was to actually get to know Sebastião and be closer to him and to see what he would feel when he saw his pictures for the first time,” Salgado told the Rover. “I had the idea that this would be good for us by then making a film about him … [This] was a realization that he had a lot to pass on and that they [his photos] have a unique perspective with a lot of humanity to share.”

Salgado said it is significant for Notre Dame to screen his documentary because the film touches the limits of living together in society. “There are two moments in the film that are terrible. One is in Rwanda and the other in Ethiopia. They kind of reflect on the very opposite situations that people are facing,” he explained. “The Ethiopian people show how humans can live with one another even when facing terribleness. In Rwanda, we see complete barbarism, there is a complete lack of hope in the human society because society cannot respond to this problem—how do you deal with those situations?

“This is a very modern question,” Salgado continued. “For young intellectuals, this documentary can raise interesting questions, especially for those interested in geopolitics and aspects of politics in our modern history.”

The documentary takes seriously the remark Sebastião Salgado once made, “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.”

Crystal Avila is a junior studying Film and Latin American Studies. She misses the good ol’ days of going to Sam’s Club to develop her copious amounts of Kodak filmstrips. If you have an extra disposable Kodak camera lying around that you do not want, let her know at cavila3@nd.edu.