Sebastião Salgado is likely the most eminent photojournalist working today. Of Salgado’s many iconic images, perhaps the most famous is this picture of a dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police taken in Brazil in 1986. It is the classic picture of tension with a twist–the authority is in the hands of the police on the right, but he earns much less than the miners thus infusing that facet of tension into the picture too.
“Serra Pelada was a large gold mine in Brazil 430 kilometres (270 mi) south of the mouth of the Amazon River. In 1979 a local child swimming on the banks of a local river found a 6 grams (0.21 oz) nugget of gold. Soon word leaked out and by the end of the week a gold rush had started. During the early 1980s, tens of thousands of prospectors flocked to the Serra Pelada site, which at its peak was said to be not only the largest open-air gold mine in the world, but also the most violent.
At first the only way to get to the remote site was by plane or foot. Miners would often pay exorbitant prices to have taxis drive them from the nearest town to the end of a dirt track; from there, they would walk the remaining distance—some 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) to the site. Huge nuggets were quickly discovered, the biggest weighing nearly 6.8 kilograms (15 lb), $108,000 at the 1980 market price ( now $ 310,173 in 2016). During the peak of the gold rush the mine was known for appalling conditions and violence, whilst the town that grew up beside it was notorious for both murder and prostitution.
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado traveled to the mines of Serra Pelada taking some of the most haunting pictures of the workers there, highlighting the sheer madness and chaos of the operation. He’s quoted as saying when he saw the mine, “Every hair on my body stood on edge. The Pyramids, the history of mankind unfolded. I had traveled to the dawn of time”.
This is how Sebastião Salgado described the mine during an interview in 1992:
Swept along by the winds that carry the hint of fortune, men come to the gold mine of Serra Pelada. No one is taken there by force, yet once they arrive, all become slaves of the dream of gold and the need to stay alive. Once inside, it becomes impossible to leave.
Every time a section finds gold, the men who carry up the loads of mud and earth have, by law, the right to pick one of the sacks they brought out. And inside they may find fortune and freedom. So their lives are a delirious sequence of climbs down into the vast hold and climbs out to the edge of the mine, bearing a sack of earth and the hope of gold.
Anyone arriving there for the first time confirms an extraordinary and tormented view of the human animal : 50,000 men sculpted by mud and dreams. All that can be heard are murmurs and silent shouts, the scrape of shovels driven by human hands, not a hint of a machine. It is the sound of gold echoing through the soul of its pursuers.”-The hell of Serra Pelada mines, 1980s; Rare Historical Photos.com
Here are more of Salgado’s series from The Mines At Serra Pelada: