Written by Hannah Lang
What do you see when you stare into the abyss of the Morenci Mine, an open-pit copper mine located in Arizona? Do you see prosperity? Success? From this bird’s eye view you probably feel astonishment mixed with disgust, that humans could single-handedly cause this type of damage to the surface of the earth. The tailings pond to the right, staring out like raw meat, says it all. Those at least are the feelings that the photographer, Edward Burtynsky, hoped to evoke. As New York Times journalist Jon Mooallem put it, “Open-pit mines are wounds we’ve inflicted, and the wonderment they excite easily becomes tinged with pangs of remorse or dread.”1 What you do not see is the 900 million pounds of copper that this mine produces every year, copper that powers everything from cell phones to windmills – or the fact that New York City is over 150 times larger than the Morenci Mine, and is equally scarring to the landscape.
Yet photos of New York City do not provoke this feeling of dread. The problem with aerial views of mines, the kinds of pictures that the media commonly uses to project a negative outlook on the mining industry, is that they only tell part of the story. These aerial photographs give no indication of the benefit that the products of these mines yield. When we see an aerial photograph of New York City, we see it as homes, businesses, and the everyday life that we are all familiar with. We are able to overlook the sheer size of the city, because we recognize its benefit. When we see an aerial view of the Tyrone mine in New Mexico, for example, we do not see the product that is fueling those lives; we are only left with an empty hole.
In the visual world we live in today, images can completely influence and shape our opinions. Pictures are particularly powerful in the mining industry, because the majority of the public will never see a mine for themselves; thus, they only see the industry from the perspective of the person taking the photograph. Today, mining companies in developed countries like the United States and Canada are required to obtain a social license from local communities before they can operate in a new location.2 This means that the public’s perception of the industry dictates where mining occurs. Communities that hold unfavorable opinions regarding mining are reluctant to grant licenses. The sad truth is that the unpopularity of the industry in the United States is forcing mines to move to underdeveloped nations, where people do not enjoy the privilege of turning a mining company away. Mining in corrupt and underdeveloped nations often leads to child labor and unsafe mining conditions for the workers, because the governments do not have policies set up to protect their workers, or the environment for that matter. In this paper, I will argue that the popular image of mining needs to be improved in order to provide the public with a realistic, objective, and honest understanding of the industry, both to make it more acceptable, and to influence the future of mining so that it benefits all of society.
Regardless of whether or not you consider mining to be beneficial or destructive, it is here to stay. The fact of the matter is that we need the industry to continue, or even increase, its operations, because everything from our electronics, to the cars we drive, the military, farming, and our health, rely on metals that we extract from the earth. Not to mention that, independent from the oil and gas industry, mining is actually helping to move the world to renewable sources of energy by providing lithium for the batteries used in electric vehicles, rare earth elements and silicon that convert light to energy in solar panels, and copper, critical for the generators in wind turbines. The challenge that the industry faces today is how to extract these metals in the most environmentally and socially responsible way, so that future generations can continue to benefit as we have from the earth’s resources. But the negative connotations that come from the media’s portrayal of the mining industry are making it harder for this to be done. To understand how the negative attitudes toward mining, particularly in the United States, have come to be, we must examine the history of mining and the images that have been used to influence the public’s opinions.
The origin of mining predates our species, as Homo habilis were shaping surface stones into tools 2.6 million years ago. Since then mining has played a dominant role in determining the course of human history, and has advanced many aspects of human life such as art, technology, warfare, and medicine.3 Before the middle of the twentieth century, the public generally viewed mining favorably. Gold rushes embodied the American Dream, and mining fueled advancements in the United States such as industrialization. Railways depended on mines for coal and steel, while mines required railways in order to transport the ore. Mining brought diversification to the labor force, and broadened economies.
The photographs below illustrate these early attitudes towards mining. The first is an image on a T.C. Williams Co. tobacco label that demonstrates how the tobacco industry profited from the excitement of the gold rush.4 The next two photographs were taken of workers at a lead-zinc mine in Oklahoma and a copper mine in Michigan.5 While today we recognize the terrible working conditions and unsafe environment that these miners were exposed to, in the early twentieth century, when these photographs were taken, people applauded miners as hardworking Americans. Mining photographs such as these prominently displayed white males, as women were practically non-existent in the industry, and other races were much less likely to be held up as examples. The final image overlooks an open pit mine in Minnesota, as part of the US President’s Railroad Commission photograph series published in 1960.6 This image resembles Burtynsky’s photograph of the Morenci Mine. Both reveal the vastness of the mining operations, but they display totally different attitudes toward the destruction of the land. Whereas Burtynsky is shocked by the damage inflicted on the landscape, the Railroad Commission photograph does not portray the natural world as under threat, as something that needs protection, as it is seen now. Instead, it was something to tame, and to exploit shamelessly, in order to provide for human life and ensure the advancement of civilization.
By the end of the twentieth century, the exploitation of people and the environment throughout the mining industry was finally being recognized. The moral dilemma of mining had overcome its benefits in the eye of the public. During the peak of the environmental movement in the 1980s and1990s, many environmentalists in the United States viewed mining as a form of “rape and pillage” of the land. At best, it was a necessary evil, only tolerable if it occurred in remote, unseen regions.7 This brought fourth strong efforts to enact legislation to protect the health and well-being of miners. One of these regulations was The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, or the Mine Act. This law drastically reduced fatalities by requiring annual inspections of all mines, strengthening and expanding the rights of miners, introducing courses in mine safety, and requiring mine rescue teams. 8 The number of mining fatalities in the United States (not including coal) have consequently decreased from 883 deaths in 1912 to 13 deaths in 2017. 9 The environmental effects of mining were also challenged. Federal laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act were all implemented after 1960 in order to regulate companies. These acts have been developed to govern current mining operations in the United States, as well as to guide the cleanup of historical ones.
The way the mining industry functions in the United States today differs drastically from the way it did just 50 years ago. Yet, the media still portrays the mining industry negatively. There are three primary reasons for this. The first reason is that the tragedies of the past continue to influence current opinions on mining. According to Ernst Hamm, a mining historian:
The exploitation of people and the environment has long been associated with mining and continues to grasp wide swathes of the public imagination—and it should surprise no one that it does so. Environmental vandalism and human suffering are not the necessary costs of mining, but they are surely widespread and impossible to ignore for anyone who considers the history of mining.
The second reason is that mining is still being done poorly in underdeveloped nations, making it easy to group all mining enterprises together. The media often uses one image of how mining is exploiting an underdeveloped nation as a blanket statement of how it is being conducted everywhere. In 2016 the Washington Post released an article on the horrors of cobalt mining in the Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces more than half the world’s cobalt, and while private companies adhering to environmental and public health policies mine some, the majority comes from the informal market. So-called “artisanal miners” dig wherever they can—along roads, under railway tracks, in backyards, sometimes waiting until dark to invade land owned by the private mining companies. Deaths from accidents occur regularly. But worst is the long-term effect that the exposure to chemicals in the mines has on the health of the miners. Images such as the one below are certainly needed to highlight these injustices.
However, the image does not indicate that the type of mining portrayed is illegal. The issue is not with the actual act of mining, but with the supply chains, that permit cobalt that has been mined illegally to enter the market. Yet, a powerful image such as this one can completely influence someone’s opinions on the entire industry. Pictures are one of the most powerful tools of communication we have, but they are not unbiased.
Hamm identifies the third reason for the misrepresentation of the mining industry today when he speaks of a “knowledge disconnect between source and end product.”12 Consider the iPhone, for example. When we buy an iPhone, we are unaware of the processes of manufacturing, because all of the components that make up the iPhone are hidden from the buyer. There is no indication, for example, that the battery contains cobalt that is being mined by child laborers in the Congo. We have generated a market today that is so complex that it is impossible to understand every component that goes into the products we buy, and thus we lose the sense of value associated with the individual sources of those products. Karl Marx predicted this in 1867 when he discussed “The Fetishism of Commodities” in the first volume of Capital. Marx explained that, “the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this.”13 He believes that it is easier for us to make a fetish of objects now that we cannot comprehend the processes and labor that went into making them.
What Hamm calls a “knowledge disconnect”, and what Marx criticizes, is actually a major part of a modern phenomenon that Guy Debord termed “the spectacle” in 1967. The spectacle is the idea that images mediate the social relationships between people. It is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and an extension of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. Debord writes:
This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things,’ which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which at the same time are recognized as the tangible par excellence.
He goes on to explain that images are really just objectified visions of the world. They claim to show the whole truth, but really just describe it from a single perspective. So, in a sense, the knowledge disconnect between sources and products in the mining industry is heightened by the spectacle. We do not understand how products are made, and images that the media uses to identify the source of products are really just misrepresentations and simplifications of the industry. This further helps to explain the issue with images such as that of child laborers in the Congo. Images that are a critique of the spectacle often become a spectacle themselves. On the other side of the spectrum, the images that mining companies are producing to restored their own reputations are no better at solving this problem. With the rise of social media, and the recognition that companies in the United States. need to gain a social license to operate, mining companies are putting more effort into producing pictures to improve their reputation.
James Hodgins, a mining-industry photographer, spoke about this shift in an interview with Clear Creek Digital, social communications and media agency that serves the mining industry. Over the past five years, Hodgins has noticed a shift from the industry being plagued with stock photography, to the rise of unique images of staff, products, and services. When he originally started working in mining photography he acknowledged that he had his own negative views of the industry. But, after seeing every stage, from exploration through extraction, his opinions have been transformed. “If only people can see what I see,” he remarked. Well luckily, since he is a photographer, they can. His favorite subject is that of people doing their job on site, as shown in the photograph below. Hodgins believes that the public has a hard time sympathizing with the mining industry, but not with the people in it. Thus, his images of people generate the greatest response. However, a comment on one of his images starts to get at why they are not perfect. The comment reads, “James, you make raping and pillaging the environment look sexy.”15 Hodgins’s images may be successful within the industry, but in terms of transforming the public’s view, they do not convey the value of mining. The combined effect of the shiny machinery, stormy sky, and thoughtful expression on the man’s face is a caricature of the truth.
At this point, the search for a successful image, one that shows the value of mining from as many perspectives as possible, appears impossible. What makes this task so difficult? An interview with Anne Thompson, president of PetraScience Consultants Inc, will help us answer this question. Thompson has a passion for educational photography of the mining industry, and explained that she is, “fascinated by how difficult it is to capture mining with a single image.” Thompson says that this is because the scale of mining operations poses the problem of either being too large, as with open pit mines, or hidden underground. She went on to explain that “Even if the image shows the effort involved or the scale, then linking that to a product which is far removed from the mining process is almost impossible.” An added challenge is that typically mines are not open to outsiders photographing their operations, and those photos that are taken are generally not permitted to be shared publicly.
Regardless of the challenges, the popular mining image needs to be modified. The media produces images that simplify problems, and generate a negative view of the entire industry. On the other hand, mining companies are producing images that do not connect the product, which is the true value of mining, to their operations. The type of photo that is missing from the mining narrative is one that links the value of the industry to a realistic view of its challenges. One artist who strives to do this is Dillon Marsh.
The photograph above is from Marsh’s series For What It’s Worth. The images in this series combine photography and computer-generated elements in an effort to visualize the output of a mine. This image in particular shows the exact quantity of copper, as a spherical ball, that was extracted from the open pit exposed. It gives value to the mine without hiding the destruction that it has caused to the landscape. Marsh writes that “Whether they are active or long dormant, mines speak of a combination of sacrifice and gain. Their features are crude, unsightly scars on the landscape - unlikely feats of hard labour and specialised engineering, constructed to extract value from the earth but also exacting a price.” His photos expose the merits and shortfalls of mining in South Africa, and begin to depict the complexity of the industry. Still, critics of this image may say that it exaggerates the worth of the copper ball without actually identifying why it is valuable.
We cannot hide the problems within the industry, but we also need to show its value, by connecting the source of mining to its product. Recognition is the first step towards improvement, but if we want improvement we also need to acknowledge the benefit that we gain from the industry. Constructive photos have two capabilities – they can educate in order to change the acceptance of mining, and they can influence its future. Through education, the public’s perception of mining will change, as it has for James Hodgins, and for myself. Images can find ways to educate by connecting the product of mining to the source, as Dillon Marsh has done. Another way to educate is by showing before and after reclamation images, to help the public understand that the scars that mines produce are reversible. Images also have the ability to influence the future of mining. Today mining in the United States and Canada requires the public’s cooperation and support to operate. Images can influence the future of mining by highlighting what is being done right. For example, images of a diversified workforce can help to inspire others to pursue a career in mining, and bride the gender and race gap in the industry. Images are one of the most powerful tools we have today, and the current images being released by the media and mining companies are not successful tools in progressing the mining industry.
© Hannah Lang 2018. All rights reserved.
About the guest author:
Hannah Lang recently graduated from Cornell University with a major in geology, completing an honors thesis on the origin of metal enrichment in a black shale formation in British Columbia. Hannah is currently continuing her education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in the Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering graduate program. Her research focuses on zinc mineralization in the Grenville orogeny in the Québec region of Canada. In her free time, Hannah enjoys the art of printmaking, and has combined her love of art with geology by using thin section images of rocks as her inspiration for lithographic prints.