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Sebastião Salgado in Maastricht

Before an invited audience, Sebastião Salgado recently sat down with his old friend and former New York Times correspondent Alan Riding to discuss his new book, GOLD, a remarkable record of the open-pit mine of Serra Pelada in northern Brazil where tens of thousands of men risked life and limb for the dream of instant wealth.

AR: You took these photos in 1986 and some were published at the time, so why have you waited so long to pull them together in one book?

SS: I went to Serra Pelada as part of a photographic project called Workers, which my wife Lélia and I imagined as a story about the end of the first industrial revolution. For that, I spent six years photographing those men and women who were still producing with their hands. This mine was one of those places. When I went there, there were about 52,000 men working in a hole about the size of two soccer stadiums and 100 meters deep. We published 10 or 15 photographs of this mine and then I continued with my travels. After Workers, I did another book, Migrations. And after Migrations, I did Genesis, but always thinking, there’s a big story in this gold mine. Three years ago, when I broke my knee and stopped working for six months, I decided to go back to my contact sheets and saw that we had a real story. Those pictures were asleep for almost 30 years. I woke them up.

AR: Serra Pelada had been operating some years by the time you went there. How come you didn’t go sooner?

SS: They discovered this mine in 1980, which was the first year Lélia and I were able to return to Brazil after almost 11 years of exile, having left the country for political reasons during the military dictatorship. I wanted to go to the mine because every photographer was going there, but the military regime wouldn’t let me. The same happened in 1981, again in 1982 and so on. Finally, in 1986, the federal government abandoned control of the mine, leaving it in the hands of a cooperative formed by the original prospectors, and they gave me permission to go.

AR: How did the cooperative work?

SS: The cooperative had distributed small plots—two meters by three meters—and the first prospectors to get to the mine had the right to a piece of land that size. But most of these guys didn’t have the money to pay for the diggers, so each had to look for a so-called “capitalist,” who put up the money. The owner then shared the profits 50:50 with the “capitalist.” To bring up the soil to see if it contained any gold, they each employed 40 men. When I got there, there were about 1,200 plots, so there were already more than 50,000 people there.

AR: Was it how you expected?

SS: There were no hotels, so you had to look after yourself. Most journalists would go just for a day. I stayed there for over a month. So I needed a place to sleep and eat. A good friend of my father from our region of the Vale do Rio Doce in Minas Gerais had sold everything and became an owner of a plot at Serra Pelada. He agreed to receive me, so I had a place to hang a hammock under a canvas roof. When I arrived and looked down into this hole, I saw a mass of people working without any machines, all digging by hand. I thought, this can’t be! I had King Solomon’s Mines before my eyes. The noise of pick-axes hitting the soil was like the noise in the souls of the diggers. They were slaves to gold.

AR: Where did all these people come from?

SS: All over Brazil—from farms, factory workers, people from universities, people of every level of culture and education. They were there for gold. When you get this disease called gold, you cannot break free of it. Let me tell you a story. In 1979, I was working in French Guiana at an abandoned gold mine. Those who lived there before it closed could stay but no one else could come in. And I met this old man—he was over 85—who came from Santa Lucia. He was so poor he wasn’t even wearing trousers. And he said to me, I’m certain that I’ll soon find gold and return to Santa Lucia to my wife and kids. He’d left them in 1936. That’s what gold does to you.

AR: When you arrived in Serra Pelada, what did they think of this outsider with blond hair and a beard?

SS: Nothing. In some of the pictures, you can see people with blond hair covered in mud. Brazil is a mixture of everything. The Dutch invaded north-east Brazil twice and they left a lot of blonds behind them. But when I got to Serra Pelada, I had a different problem. Like my family, my father’s friend came from the valley that gave its name to the Vale do Rio Doce Company, one of the biggest mining companies in the world which happened to own the Serra Pelada concession. And when he said I’d come from the valley, the miners thought I’d be sent by the company to spy on them. So a few minutes after I arrived at the edge of the hole, everyone stopped work and started to hammer on their axes and spades, making a huge noise. I started to photograph and climbed down, but each guy with a bag full of mud would hit me as we passed. Within 20 meters, I was covered in mud, as were my cameras. A policeman spotted me and said, “Hey, gringo, I want to see your passport.” I told him I had no passport, so he put me in handcuffs and dragged me away. When the miners saw this, they knew no agent from the company would be treated like that and they started heckling the cop. The guy took me to his senior officer who quickly understood I was Brazilian and ordered me free, with apologies. But the point is that, when I returned to the mine an hour later, everyone cheered. From that moment on, I was totally accepted.

AR: The police presence was probably necessary, but it also complicated things.

SS: There was massive tension. Sometimes a policeman killed a miner and, since you had lots of stones around, some cops were stoned to death. There was a mood of violence between them. But there was another dimension. Because the police could carry a weapon, they felt superior to all these guys covered in mud. But these miners didn’t feel like that. Why? Because for them every day was a lottery. While carrying up sacks of mud, they were all potentially rich, they were potential millionaires, while the policemen received miserable wages.

AR: Can you describe your typical day in Serra Pelada?

SS: You know, when someone is making a film, he has a script, he knows what he’ll be doing every day. As a photographer, you know where you’re going but you don’t know what you’ll find. We are completely free. So I’d go up and down several times a day. The only problem was going down. Because it was steep and very slippery, the best way was running. If you stopped, you might slide down into the hole. Remember, I was young then. Now I’m 75 years old!

AR: Did you witness accidents?

SS: I saw one guy die close to me. When another slipped off the ladder, he took two or three guys with him. There were lots of accidents and we didn’t have medical assistance. But that was part of the risk. When you’re in a war, you know you’re in a war. There it was the same.

AR: In those pre-digital days, you used film. How could you protect it from the mud?

SS: That wasn’t a problem. When you needed to change your film, you just stopped and did it. I carried three Leicas and worked with 28, 35 and 60 millimeter lenses. I needed them because in those days, zoom lenses were not so good. Today they are perfect.

AR: When we first met in Mexico in 1980, like most photographers at the time, you were shooting in color. But in Serra Pelada, you shot in black and white. Why?

SS: In Mexico, I was already working on my first book, Other Americas, but I had no money. So I always carried colour film in case I was offered a job because no one ever asked me to shoot in black and white. But my real pictures have always been in black and white.

AR: Why do you prefer that?

SS: I find it complicated to shoot in color. If there’s some red there and another colour over there, when my photos are developed, those are the spots we’ll see first, and not your personality, your expression, your dignity. In any event, black and white is an abstraction and when I enter this abstraction, I find all these grays that are not real black or real white. With these grays, I can concentrate on your face.