It’s one big mess of bodies carrying burlap bags in a sort of improvised and nightmarish choreography, in which each person is on the verge of staggering, where the strenuous effort is written on the hunched over backs and the strained legs. Almost no faces to be seen in this photo, if not for the one on the man at the bottom, who looks like he’s trapped in a muddy cavity, with an empty and absent look in his eyes. He seems to be taking a short rest period in the midst of the whirlwind, while, behind him, a cluster of humans carves out a path for itself in a trench and other workers, ever more of them, climb up towards the heavens.
Sebastião Salgado took this photograph in 1986, during the thirty-five days he spent at the Serra Pelada mine in Brazil, the world’s largest open-pit gold mine. At that time, there were no less than 52,000 men working there. The photographer shot 200 rolls of 36 shots while there. He shared everything with the workers: food, housing, conversations. He became someone they could trust. They let him photograph them while slaving away in the mud.
It is perhaps that ability to blend in with the background that has borne so much fruit in his work. Sebastião Salgado managed to become one of the workers, to take his camera into the gaping wound that this human mass represents on the landscape and to show us the extent to which the quest for gold can make people lose sight of themselves. It went on to become a legendary piece of photojournalism, which was immediately picked up by two major newspapers and which, according to the artist, helped bring back black and white to the printed press, which swore by color and color only.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Gold – Sebastião Salgado