Sebastião Salgado has won every major prize a photographer can receive, with his crisp, compassionate black-and-white images, many of them from war zones and other locations of human suffering, hanging on the walls of museums, galleries and private collections around the world. His books, including “Workers,” “Migrations,” “Sahel” and, most recently, the nature-oriented “Genesis,” have consistently met with commercial and critical success.
Now, as if to complete the picture, a documentary film about Mr. Salgado, 71, and his work is about to opens in theaters across the United States. “The Salt of the Earth,” a collaborative effort between the German director Wim Wenders, who is also a photographer, and Mr. Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary film, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival last spring and last month was also awarded a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award.
The documentary features Mr. Salgado explaining, in French and Portuguese, how he came to take some of his best-known images, such as those from the Serra Pelada series shot in a gold mine in the Amazon 30 years ago. But it also makes clear that his path to becoming a renowned photographer was arduous: He was born deep in the isolated Brazilian interior, scrimped to get an economics degree, left his country and took refuge in France after a military dictatorship seized power in Brazil, and in the mid-1990s suffered what he called “a deep psychological crisis” after covering the genocidal civil wars in Rwanda and Bosnia and had to recalibrate the focus of his work.
Nowadays, although “my vision of the human being has not changed, I no longer think just of my own species,” Mr. Salgado, speaking in Portuguese, said in a telephone interview from his studio in Paris last month. “That’s not my only preoccupation. Today I think of the other species too, of the ants, the termites, the whales, they are as important as my own. The behavior of our species, what we do to nature, to other species, to each other, is awful, so I have the same skepticism about us that I always had.”
That broadened interest in environmental concerns is documented in detail in “The Salt of the Earth,” which shows him working on the “Genesis” project in locales as far-flung as the Amazon, the Arctic and New Guinea and also accompanies him as he tries to undo the environmental degradation afflicting his native region through a foundation he set up for that purpose, the Instituto Terra. Mr. Salgado talked about those and other subjects with Larry Rohter. Their conversation has been edited.
Q.You’ve largely avoided movies in the past. What made you willing to do this documentary film? Was it because your son was involved?
A. It wasn’t a decision taken easily in the beginning. Juliano had always wanted to do the story of his family, he’s the child of immigrants, we came here to Paris and in the beginning we were kind of refugees, it was during the time of the Brazilian dictatorship, and we remained here. You must have seen the film and noted that my father is in it. That was done around 1998 or 1999, when Juliano was very young, just starting to do cinema.
Then, around 2009, Wim Wenders came to our house, and I showed him the photographs from “Genesis.” I said to him, ‘This is the project I am working on.’ I made a slide show, I did conferences, I put some music to it. I didn’t know anything about cinema, but I asked: Is there a way to make a film of this? That was my idea. In my head, I really wanted the images to enter into that world in some fashion.