Cédric Gerbehaye’s work has been dealing with the extraction of raw materials for quite some time now. According to the photographer’s observations, extraction is both a mirror and a tool of leverage of the ongoing globalization. In 2017 he travelled to Brazil and the Vale Grande Carajás mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world, which also produces gold, manganese, bauxite, copper and nickel. In our interview, he speaks about why the subject is important to him, and how he focusses on the ecological and social consequences of the operations, rather than the work in the mines themselves.
What is your biggest challenge when taking pictures?
Photography is a means of analysis and an instrument which, though perhaps demonstrating nothing, makes it possible to ask questions, and to apply sensitivity at the point when they are asked. The quest is always to find the right distance. Physically and emotionally.
How do you find your narratives?
I document and do research through reading the press and books, listening to the radio, reading literary novels, as well as watching documentary films. I give a lot of importance to meeting people who know the issue or the field: researchers, scientists, historians, journalists, NGO staff … Questioning is very often at the origin.
You’ve truly mastered your black and white photography. Why did you choose to produce the series on Vale Grande Carajás in colour? What are the advantages of colour?
I still maintain a preference for black and white. The choice of colour is often made because of publishing in the press.
You were working on a project on silver mining in Potosí and you’ve documented lithium mining in Uyuni. Extractivism and mining seem to be primary issues in your work at the moment. Why is this and what takes you from one project to another?
This story, which I produced over two three-week stays in 2017, represents a chapter in a broader body of work dealing with mineral extractivism in South America. Extractivism is like a treasure hunt, where the strongest do not shy away from violence to monopolize the natural resources of the planet. A few centuries ago, when there was only human strength to dig mine shafts, to dig for gold or grow cotton and sugar cane, ship-owners and settlers used slaves, subdued by the whip and the gun. Today the dispossession of the resources for the benefit of the most powerful has been amplified.
The Amazonian rain forest is being destroyed and exploited for many reasons. Apart from soy beans there are the mines. What was it that you wanted to show? Please explain your approach.
Mining and extractivism are both a mirror and a leverage of the ongoing globalization. They raise problems in terms of management and control, but also, more fundamentally, in terms of equality, rights and ultimately of societal choices. The many resulting conflicts take various forms and gather together different social forces, the structures of which largely determine the fate of our planet. The negative effects of mining are not only substantial, but also inevitable. They disrupt the environment (because they are highly polluting), as well as society, and are generators of human rights violations and conflict.
We see people going about their everyday lives, inside and outside their homes. What was your impression of the people? How do they manage?
The mining company and its subcontractors attract workers from across the region, hoping for a better life. Some live in homes belonging to the “Minha casa, minha vida” (My house, my life) program – Brazil’s largest housing construction program in the last thirty years; or, for the less privileged, in one of the palafitas, dwellings illegally built on stilts above marshes. Parauapebas is a city of 300,000 inhabitants that didn’t exist thirty years ago. The disappointed ones, who don’t find jobs in this Eldorado, remain there nonetheless, most frequently turning to agriculture. Para is the state with the most “assatamentos”, plots granted to landless peasants by the government.
There is a big railway line linking the mines to the coast. What meaning does it have for the people?
Vale operates the 890 km-long railway that links the mines in the Carajás region of the Brazilian state of Para, to the maritime terminal of Ponta da Madeira, Sao Luis, in the Brazilian state of Maranhaõ. The longest train (3.5km) in Latin America operates along that line. It is made up of 330 wagons, and its main cargo is iron ore; but there is also a private passenger train. The fleet is composed of 220 locomotives and 20 000 wagons. 15 ore trains pass through 27 villages every day. Some of them are the victims of pollution caused by the iron and steel industries, as well as the coal industry necessary to transform the iron into cast iron, which is also transported to the coast.
In December 2016, Vale inaugurated the new S11D mine, which meant that a second railway line had to be laid down, causing the eviction of many families from their homes, to allow for the increase in rail traffic following the increase in iron ore production, destined for the Asian market – mainly China.
This and your earlier mines series have definite political undertones. In what way do you see this as part of your job as a photographer? How important is it to you to get across the message concerning the side effects of globalization?
I consider that the practice of documentary photography is an act of commitment; of being engaged. Take a stand and try to grasp the implications and overlaps of any given situation. Decide on a course and remain a discreet and humble observer.
Your pictures are produced by the moment, your eye and your camera. How important is post production to you?
It’s part of the work that makes up the narration.
What camera did you use for this story and what did you like about it?
I was using a Leica Q2. This camera is the ideal tool for those wanting discretion, rigour and quality.
What current or future projects are you involved in?
During this time of Covid 19, I’m in Belgium finishing off work for the National Geographic magazine. After that I’ll be focussing on my feature documentary film, about a prison in Brussels.
Cédric Gerbehaye was born in Brussels in 1977 and focuses on conflicts with a global impact. He is a founding member of the MAPS Agency. He is the author of the books Congo in Limbo (2010), Land of Cush (2013) Sète#13 (2013) and D’entre eux (2015). His work has received several international recognitions (the Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club of America, the World Press Photo, the Amnesty International Media Award, among others). His images can be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and the FotoMuseum in Antwerp. Currently, he is investigating the extraction of natural resources in South America, and working on his first documentary, feature film inside a prison in Brussels. Gerbehaye is a National Geographic magazine contributor. Find out more on the website of MAPS and his Instagram channel.