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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Title: Gold Mine, Serra Pelada, Brazil, 1986
Date: 1986
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: Sheet: 15 3/4 × 19 5/8 inches (40 × 49.8 cm)
Credit Line: Acquired through the generosity of Jennifer, Gale, and Ira Drukier
Object Number: 2000.025.001
Label Text: Sebastião Salgado left his formal training in economics to communicate information in other ways. Salgado uses his camera all over the world, recording catastrophe, industry, protests, and the lives of the workers, through “militant photography.” Salgado states, “Everything that happens in the world must be shown and people around the world must have an idea of what’s happening to other people around the world.”

This vertiginous scene, from Salgado’s Workers series, is an unflinching look at the human condition. In Brazil since the 1980s, around fifty thousand men toiled in the state- controlled gold mines during the dry season at Serra Pelada. For twenty cents per sack, they ascended the vertical wells for a journey that could be half a mile long.
The so-called “mud hogs”—faceless and perilously scaling ladders with ropes strained against their foreheads— hauled between 65 and 130 pounds each trip. By law, if gold was found, a worker could choose one sack from the extraction. Today Serra Pelada is abandoned, and a polluted lake stands there. ("This is no Less Curious: Journeys through the Collection" cocurated by Sonja Gandert, Alexandra Palmer, and Alana Ryder and presented at the Johnson Museum January 24 - April 12, 2015)


This image is part of Salgado’s photo-essay Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age that describes the plight of the fifty thousand gold miners who carted sacks of mud out of the mine every day from the shaft to the crater’s edge. Each sack weighed between 65 and 130 pounds, and the worker was paid an average of twenty cents per sack. During the early 1980s, Serra Pelada was the world’s largest open-air gold mine known for its horrendous and violent conditions. Salgado described his experience: “Every hair on my body stood on edge. The Pyramids, the history of mankind unfolded. I had travelled to the dawn of time.”

The Johnson Museum has strong holdings of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers like Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, and we continue to build in this area by adding work by photographers such as Larry Fink, Judith Joy Ross, Gilles Peress, and Salgado who bring contemporary approaches to social and documentary photography. (“Highlights from the Collection: 45 Years at the Johnson," curated by Stephanie Wiles and presented at the Johnson Museum January 27–July 22, 2018)

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.