The legendary German filmmaker Wim Wenders, like fellow countryman Werner Herzog, has spent a career jumping between fiction and non-fiction. The "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire" director has one of the former due out soon: “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” with Rachel McAdams, James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg. But America is only now getting his recent doc, the Oscar-nominated “The Salt of the Earth,” about noted photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, made with the man’s son, Juliano. "Earth" follows his career over the decades, shooting in far-flung and usually economically distraught regions, and coming back with stark black-and-white photos that give dignity to the people he met. Both Wim and Juliano spoke to Metro while the former presented a retrospective of his films at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
In a way this could be read as one of your road movies, like “Kings of the Road” or “Alice in the Cities.” But instead of a single journey, it’s covering a man on the road his entire life.
Wim Wenders: It links much more with my films about artists, like Pina or [“Buena Vista Social Club”]. My interest was, “Who is the man behind these unbelievable photographs?” Juliano’s interest was, “Who the heck is my father?” It’s not really in the vein of my road movies, although before I knew it I’d traveled several times to Brazil, and soon had this unbelievable footage by Juliano from very remote places in the world. Following Sebastiao. you have to be a hard traveler, because he’s one of the craziest world surrounders. How often do you think he’s circled the globe?
Juliano Salgado: He’s been doing it for 40 years, so he’s been in every single country in the world. How many times? I’m not sure. But countless.
One of the main threads in the film is the way he really gets to know the people he’s photographing so that the photos are not simply abstract images of poverty and misery.
JS: The way anyone sees something or photographs something is subjective. You always have your own way of seeing it. There’s not a single truth for anything. There are always many truths. And the way Sebastiao sees things, it’s very much linked with the people he was living with at the time and how this emotion provoked him.
WW: And then he has an advantage over a lot of other photographers, in that he spends time with these people. He connects in deeper ways than many photographers, who travel to areas of conflict and social unrest and are only there for a few hours or a couple days. Sebastiao lives there, and lives with them under these conditions and gets lost with these people. He travels with them. He’s involved in different ways. That creates context. In the footage [Juliano] shot, I saw that this man is able to make contact while he photographs. Other photographers make a point of staying distant, and they work with long lenses. Their ethos is to not get involved. Sebastiao gets involved very deeply.
JS: When you see the photo years later you can feel that emotion he was feeling at the time. What was happening between he and the person is still there in the photo. Photos usually create a distance between you and the subject. But when you see a photo Sebastiao took of the Papua or someone, you’re not thinking about the distance between you and the people in the photo. And you have to accept them. You can’t protect yourself. When we see the news we’re used to protecting ourselves. We know this is going to be hard and I’m not really going to accept it. It’s just an image. But with Sebastiao’s photos you can’t because of the emotion in them.
There has been criticism of Sebastiao’s photos, especially from Susan Sontag, who says they aestheticize misery and render them beautiful.
JS: A lot of people say his photographs are too beautiful. These are beautiful photos of people in extreme poverty, and that is a contradiction. But how do you take a photo of a poor person that is not beautiful? Would you do an ugly photo? Would you try to downplay any beauty the photo could have? This is a very honest way of doing it, the way he does it. And it can be very beautiful. When you think about it, I don’t think there’s a better way of doing it.
WW: How else can you do it? How else can you photograph misery than by trying to make it the best photograph you can? You owe them that much.
Can you speak about the power of him using black and white as opposed to color?
WW: If you look at his work, any of his pictures, and you imagine them in color, then you realize what’s getting lost. In color they’re illustrative. In color the accent is on something else. In black and white you’re forced to see the essence of the situation. You’re forced to enter the situation. With color you can say, “I can do that as well.” It’s a snapshot. The black and white takes the snapshot idea away and makes it an x-ray of the situation. It’s no longer just a harrowing situation. You see the essence of what it’s like to dig for gold, or to live in the Arctic Circle. The black and white forces you into a certain abstraction, makes you realize what the essence of the situation is. The Kuwait oil fields [he shot], with these flaming yellows and reds coming out of the earth — it would be strictly aesthetic in color.
Wim, the five-hour cut of your 1991 futuristic film “Until the End of the World,” once presented in a severely chopped-down version, was recently screened in a retro of your films. Without cheapening it, it’s interesting to see the technology it wound up accurately predicting: GPS, widescreen televisions, video phonecalls. Are there deeper things about the evolving human condition you think it got right?
WW: We are so much more involved with our own self-image. Culturally I think the selfie is a much bigger phenomenon than we think right now. For 150 years photography was about you looking through a lens and you film what’s out. And now the camera becomes something more like a mirror. Yesterday I was in a restaurant and I saw this girl. She was sitting alone and she kept taking her own picture with the food she was eating. That’s when I realized the selfie is a perversion of photography. Photography is an act to conquer the world and take possession of it and witness and observe. And all of a sudden photography becomes an act of narcissism. The selfie is an incredible cultural reversal of things, like those social media sites, which should not be called what they’re called because they’re not social. They make people lonely. I think that’s one thing we predicted in “Until the End of the World,” that the image culture becomes a culture that isolates us.