Black-and-white photographs of a vast pit, its sides cut into a giant’s stairway and scaled by crude ladders, its surface covered with figures, most bearing large sacks; scanning the space between foreground and distant background, the effect is dizzying—there must be thousands of these figures.footnote The pictures are of an open-cast gold mine in Brazil, named Serra Pelada. No mechanical diggers or trucks are to be seen. Instead, so we can read in texts which accompany the pictures, there are workers who dig out the ore with shovels, load it into sacks—weighing between thirty and sixty kilos—and haul them up ladders and mud slopes to the authorities waiting at the top. They make as many as sixty trips a day, and for each climb they are paid twenty cents. Fifty thousand workers toil here, dreaming of the chance find that could make them rich.footnote1

For those who make up the ‘golden billion’, that fifth of the world’s people whose lives are reasonably comfortable and free, and those who, for the most part, are the viewers of these photographs, the scale of the scene is difficult to grasp; it is reminiscent of Bosch perhaps; or of accounts of the great nineteenth-century engineering projects, or of ambitious Soviet constructions like the Fergana Grand Canal in the days when nothing seemed impossible, but, in truth, it is harsher and more reliant on raw human labour than either of these. Our immediate reaction is to think that these must be pictures of the distant past, but actually they bear the date 1986.

While from afar the workers resemble the living elements of a vast insect colony, uniform in colour and packed tightly together, up close—though mud-mired from head to toe—they reveal their human aspect, and the physical extremes to which they push themselves. These pictures of Serra Pelada by the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado have become quite renowned, and have been widely published, though perhaps more in exhibition catalogues and books about photography than in the mass media. They are plainly a powerful metonym of the struggle for gold in which everyone is, in some way, obliged to engage. They are also an image of the Latin American history of the exacting and violent quest for gold to which so many lives have been sacrificed in the long centuries since Columbus’s band stumbled on those shores, the name of that base metal on their lips. But to see the pictures only in this way, outside their immediate context as documentary, is to take the view from afar, and to forget the fate of the individuals present in the photographs, of their lives in that mine at that time—and, indeed, of those who work there even now.footnote2

So abstracted is the scene of Serra Pelada from anything in our experience, claims Arthur Danto, that ‘you can’t locate it in history. . .You’re astonished that anything like that could happen in the contemporary world.’footnote3 It is certainly true that Salgado’s photographs do not settle easily into a culture dominated by neoliberal doctrine. According to its various and influential accounts of the ‘end of history’, humanity has reached a Hegelian terminus where, aside from minor tweaking or local amelioration, we cannot expect anything better. We really are, claim their authors (twentieth-century heirs of Pangloss), living in the best of all possible worlds, in which ‘all of the really big questions have been settled’.footnote4 Even some of those who criticize such ideas, while retaining a deconstructive or postmodern point of view, would have us believe that it makes no sense to talk of such grand concepts as ‘class’ or to dare any longer to imagine any overarching project of improvement—and, indeed, some have long and consistently maintained this position.footnote5 So part of the immediate shock of Salgado’s work is simply to present contemporary scenes which should have long been banished from the perfectible neoliberal state; to show in a supposedly post-industrial world, scenes of vast pre-industrial labour; in a time of ahistorical bliss, scenes of naked exploitation and oppression.

Given the quotidian interest of these pictures, an immediate question arises: why are they better known in the world of fine art than in the mass media? In part, it is to do with the end of the illustrated magazines as a dominant visual news medium in the face of competition from television. But the retreat from the tradition of ‘straight’—that is, direct and unmanipulated—documentary image-making was the result of much more than simple technological change.