“Condemned to nostalgia, tortured by poverty and cold, Potosi remains an open wound of the colonial system in America: a still audible ‘J’accuse.’”
Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America
[Translated by Cedric Belfrage]
My work as a photojournalist in Latin America has always been influenced by the book Open Veins of Latin America by the Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano. It was written in the 1970s and covers the period from European colonization through to the time of writing, telling the tale of discrimination against indigenous peoples, of the plunder of natural resources, and of violations of human rights.
The project on the mines in Potosí, is a new chapter in the radiographic approach I have chosen and used for the 25 years and more I have been working in Latin America.
I spent almost nine months living the life of the miners in Potosí, following them through the cramped, narrow tunnels forming the entrails of the mountain, and also following their traditional practices and everyday family life.
The men work underground, in darkness, heat, dust and arsenic fumes, gasping for oxygen. The women work on the barren mountain slopes where the cold and the wind burn their eyes and skin.
For over 500 years, working conditions for miners have remained, to all intents and purposes, unchanged. The men, with bulging cheeks, chew coca leaves to keep hunger and pain at bay as they continue to dig, ever further, in search of their one dream, that ultimate vein of silver ore which, in their imagination, could bring an end to centuries of poverty. But, as one miner told me, they know only too well that the Spaniards and the large private companies operating in the 19th and 20th centuries left only “crumbs from the rich man’s table.”
In 1545, when the conquistadors found silver, they achieved the purpose of their travels and explorations of the New World. The rich mountain, Cerro Rico (4,782 meters or 15,689 feet high), held the largest silver deposit ever discovered.
At the foot of the mountain, the city of Potosí sprang up overnight, and for nearly three centuries was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world. Silver from the Cerro Rico was mined, and the cost in human lives was enormous as indigenous people were reduced to a state of slavery and millions died to produce the silver which flowed into European economies, contributing to the accumulation of capital in the period before the Industrial Revolution.
Today, many of the thousands of miners and Indians in rural areas have no other choice than to abandon the land that cannot feed them. And so they brave danger and disease (such as silicosis which is fatal at a young age), working in the mines in their quest for a better life.
For protection from the dangers threatening underground where a cave-in can occur at any moment, the miners place their faith in El Tío, the well-endowed deity and acclaimed master of the Underworld, a deity both revered and feared. El Tio is fed on a diet of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and prayer, and may perhaps lead the miners to the site where, in exchange for their offerings, and sometimes their souls, they will find that long sought after vein of silver.
- Don Quijote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
With support from the French national center for the visual arts (Fund to support contemporary documentary photography) and the Figaro Magazine.