The Gold Mine, Brazil is a black and white photograph depicting a large number of mine workers densely packed together on various parts of a tall cliff. The scene is shown at a distance and from a high vantage point, so that the workers appear very small and only their general forms are discernible. Some can be seen digging in pits in the lower part of the image, while others carry large sacks up the cliff by means of steep ladders, or stand at its brow, perhaps waiting to climb down. In the top section of the scene, which is misty and therefore less detailed, many workers can be seen carrying sacks away into the distance, suggesting that the mine continues beyond the edges of the frame and conveying a further sense of its vast size. The cliff face looks barren and rocky, while lower down the landscape appears muddier and some crude paths and fortifying walls can be seen.
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, 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 of pictures 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 The Gold Mine, 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.)
While some of Salgado’s pictures of Serra Pelada focus on individual workers or smaller groups (see Mining, Brazil 1986, Tate P13090), this is one of several that emphasise the enormous size of the mine and its workforce. In The Gold Mine, Brazil workers are shown from a considerable distance in a way that makes them appear very similar, which has the effect of partly removing the individual identities of the workers. The cultural historian Parvati Nair has commented on this de-individualising of workers in the Serra Pelada series as a whole, stating that ‘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).
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 workers (see Lash 2013, accessed 21 November 2014). Salgado’s political concerns are reflected in his photographs of Serra Pelada through their emphasis on the physical hardship of working at the mine as well as the poor conditions experienced by its labourers, suggesting an interest in raising awareness about their situation. Furthermore, the art historian Julian Stallabrass has observed that Salgado’s images of the mine are shocking because they ‘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).
Sebastião Salgado, An Uncertain Grace, London 1990, reproduced p.17.
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.