Salgado at the Serra Pelada Mine, Brazil

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Salgado at the Serra Pelada Mine, Brazil
Sebastiao Salgado, 'Serra Pelada, Brazil', 1986
Salgado at the Serra Pelada Mine, Brazil

This photograph is taken from Salgado’s most famous early series photographed at the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil – a famously controversial mine that employed thousands of local workers in appalling, perilous conditions.

Every day 50,000 gold diggers descended Serrra Palada’s open top mine, the size of a football field. The State gave concessions of 65 sq ft of vertical land wells to each owner who had to dig directly downwards. Each well had ten people working on it (diggers, carriers, supervisors), and the carriers hauled sacks of soil for 0.20 US cents per sack. The men struggled over one another’s plots and up ladders to reach the upper edge, where they received a ‘slip’ for their sackload. The gold diggers were known as ‘mud dogs’ as they waded through dirt and slime. If gold was found, the plot owner paid 10% commission to the cooperative. 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.

Salgado immortalized scenes of medieval horror as tens of thousands of men worked in appalling conditions. They were published all over the world, and the vertigo-inducing pictures revealed the scale of the Dante-esque hell endured by the miners. Despite the foreboding shadow cast by humanity’s propulsion towards self-destruction, community is constantly at the centre of Salgado’s vision. Displaced, degraded and corrupted, humanity can always be ennobled through the return to community.

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