“This piece of work is my song of friendship to the people of Bolivia and all those whose daily work consists of seeking their destiny in the depths of the earth.”
The collection of some 80 photographs was taken by award-winning Swiss photographer Jean-Claude Wicky over a period of 17 years between 1984 and 2001. In that time he visited over 30 mining centres in Bolivia where he was able to take photographs of miners, their homes and their families, highlighting their working and living conditions.
The project started when Wicky was travelling across Latin America and visited the city of Potosí. There he followed a miner into the entrance to one of the mines and, profoundly moved by what he saw, he promised himself that one day he would photograph the story of the Bolivian miners. It was ten years later when Wicky began the project:
“I didn’t realise at first just the size of the task. How could I photograph the damp air, the heat, the lack of oxygen, the sour mineral smell that seeps into men’s bodies? How to capture the darkness of the mine, the dense blackness — more impenetrable than rock itself — which suspends all sense of orientation, of time and distance, the darkness that burns your eyes and makes your body disappear…”
The conditions in the mines are grim, with little care for health and safety, making work underground — using rudimentary tools and sticks of dynamite — fraught with danger. The rewards for long-hours of back-breaking work are meagre and housing is very basic, a couple of rooms providing scant protection or comfort for the miners and their families. Wicky’s photographs starkly illustrate these conditions, but they also show the human qualities that flourish within the mines and the settlements around them:
“In my laboratory, each photograph which appears slowly in the developing tray reminds me of a story: of solidarity, affection, friendship, generosity and hospitality. After having seen the wounds of the metal on these bodies, covered in dust and sweat, sometimes I ask myself who natural resources belong to and to whom human suffering belongs…”
The haunting exhibition has so far been seen by over 500,000 people across Latin America and Europe. This is the first time it has been shown in the UK, giving people here the chance to glimpse the lives and struggles of miners who toil in the high Andes, on the other side of the world.
© Jean-Claude Wicky