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Mining, Brazil is a black and white photograph depicting a group of people climbing a very muddy incline. The scene is cropped so that none of the figures’ heads are visible, and their specific location is unclear, although the work’s title gives Brazil as the country. A small area of bright light can be seen in the top left corner of the photograph, suggesting that the climbers, who are all moving in the same direction, are near to the top of the incline or approaching a plateau. Four figures can be seen in the foreground of the picture, while fragments of torsos, arms and legs are visible beyond them, in the upper part of the photograph. The climbers all wear shirts and shorts that appear dirty and drenched in sweat, and their legs are toned and shiny from perspiration. The ground looks wet and soft, and there is grass and plant matter mixed in with the mud. The group as a whole appears to be racially mixed, since at least one of the figures in the foreground seems to have black skin while the other three are white.
This photograph was taken by the Brazilian social documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado at the Serra Pelada gold mine in north-west Brazil in 1986. It is part of Serra Pelada, a group of twenty-eight photographs that Salgado took of the mine in that year (see also The Gold Mine, Brazil 1986, Tate P13091), when he spent several weeks living there and observing the workers (Ken Light, Witness in Our Time: The Lives of Documentary Photographers, Washington 2000, p.7). Around fifty thousand workers laboured at Serra Pelada while Salgado was there, each making as many as sixty trips down the cliff and back per day while carrying sacks that weighed between thirty and sixty kilograms, and they were paid twenty cents for each of these journeys (Stallabrass 1997, p.131).
Salgado’s photographs of the mine are part of a larger series entitled Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age 1986–92 that includes three hundred and thirteen photographs from forty-two types of workplace in twenty-six countries. As well as producing individual prints of the images in this series, Salgado compiled them into a book of the same title in 1997. Throughout his career Salgado has used his photographic projects to explore social and economic conditions in countries across the world, stating in 1993 that his work ‘is not art and I certainly don’t think of myself as an artist: it is reportage’ (quoted in Jonathan Glancey, ‘Workers, Warriors, Heroes’, Independent, 15 December 1993, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/workers-warriors-heros-sebastiao-salgados-workers-now-on-show-in-london-is-an-epic-account-of-the-world-of-manual-labour-but-what-does-it-tell-us-1467573.html, accessed 21 November 2014).
The use of simple, objective description in title of this photograph could relate to the ‘archaeological’ nature of the wider series of which Mining, Brazil is a part. In 2013 Salgado said of the project
I saw that we were arriving at the end of the first big industrial revolution … And I saw in this moment that many things would be changed in the worker’s world. And I made a decision to pay homage to the working class. And the name of my body of work was Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age. Because they were becoming like archaeology; it was photographs of something that was disappearing.
(Salgado in Ryan Lash, ‘The Language of Photography: Q&A with Sebastião Salgado’, TEDBlog, 1 May 2013, http://blog.ted.com/2013/05/01/the-language-of-photography-qa-with-sebastiao-salgado, accessed 21 November 2014.)
Through its focus on the workers’ dirty, sweating bodies and the exertion of climbing out of the mine, this photograph emphasises the physical hardship of working at Serra Pelada as well as the poor conditions experienced by its labourers. The art historian Julian Stallabrass has observed that ‘part of the immediate shock of Salgado’s work is simply to present contemporary scenes which should have long been banished from the perfectible neoliberal state … [and] show in a supposedly post-industrial world, scenes of vast pre-industrial labour … scenes of naked exploitation and oppression’ (Stallabrass 1997, p.133). Before becoming a photographer Salgado was a Marxist economist and activist, and he has acknowledged that this background influenced his decision to make a series depicting labourers (Salgado in Lash 2013, accessed 21 November 2014).
The cropping of the workers’ heads from the scene in Mining, Brazil has the effect of partly removing their identities. The cultural historian Parvati Nair has argued that this is a common feature of Salgado’s photographs of Serra Pelada, describing them as images in which ‘Innumerable men, rendered alike by a shared abject poverty, become almost indistinguishable from the mud that covers their bodies: human[s] reduced to mere usage, without value, without name or distinction’ (Nair 2011, p.72).
Sebastião Salgado, An Uncertain Grace, London 1990, reproduced p.21.
Julian Stallabrass, ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism’, New Left Review, no.223, May–June 1997, pp.131–3, 146–7, 160.
Parvati Nair, A Different Light: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado, Durham and London 2011, pp.71–3, 229–37, 262–3.
Supported by Christie’s.