This April Cornell will celebrate Sustainability Month for the thirteenth consecutive year. Interns at the Johnson are looking at works in the Museum’s permanent collection for the perspectives they offer about pressing environmental issues.

Natalia Gulick ’21 is the Museum’s 2020–21 intern working with our preparator team.

A swirling mass of bodies emerges from one of the world’s largest open-air gold mines in Gold Mine, Serra Pelada, Brazil, 1986 by Sebastião Salgado. Part of his photo-essay Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, this image is one of his most recognizable of the conditions at Serra Pelada in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, where men would descend into the gold mine and emerge with sacks weighing up to 130 pounds secured to their backs. The scene of thousands of workers climbing makeshift ladders out of a nearly half-mile-long abyss is a sobering reminder of the ways in which humans and environments are damaged by frantic exploitation and extraction.

Originally educated as an economist in São Paulo, Salgado became fascinated with means of documentation during his trips to Africa while employed by the World Bank. The photographer turned from numerical to visual analysis in 1973, with the reasoning that “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.” He is known for his deeply detailed black-and-white images that depict rugged landscapes and lived experiences. Although Salgado often compiles his works into anthologies that include elegant prose, his rich photographic style is able to stand alone in supporting his implied or explicit arguments.

Serra Pelada was originally a simple tract of farmland owned by Genésio Ferreira da Silva near a running stream. After Ferreira discovered gold on his property and word spread through both rumors and reporters, a gold rush of hundreds to thousands of eager miners descended upon the farm. Originally, Ferreira built barricades in an attempt to deter these uninvited visitors, but to little avail. He decided to then establish a system in which miners would provide him with a tenth of their collected ore in exchange for access to his land. Ferreira’s luck was short-lived when he was ousted as the owner by the Brazilian government, which converted his ad hoc mining operation into a state-controlled facility that measured over 75 meters in depth and over 800 meters in width. With over fifty thousand workers swarming the facilities daily, Serra Pelada soon became known for its precarious working conditions in which miners toiled from dawn to dusk in the hope of a life-changing discovery.

The environmental impact of these gaping gold mines has been similarly devastating. The harvest shafts are not a natural void, but a man-made excavation. As a result, precipitation and groundwater activity threatened the site during its economic heyday, with floods filling the chasm and mud slides threatening to destroy sections of the mine at a fatal cost to the workers. The original footprint of the operation began to cut into the Amazonian jungle, and eventually sprawled into the deeper stretches of native tribal lands as the ore began to run out. Now, the Serra Pelada mine lays abandoned, a polluted lake in its place.

The infamous sights of Serra Pelada have been documented by Sebastião Salgado as well as artist Alfredo Jaar and cinematographer Godfrey Reggio. While photographing the gold mine, Salgado noted that “Every hair on my body stood on edge. The Pyramids, the history of mankind unfolded. I had travelled to the dawn of time.” The contemporary conditions nearly forty years later created by the frenzied excavation indicate widespread ecological degradation and human tragedy. The chance that any worker would get rich from these mines was miniscule. While these workers moved en masse to Serra Pelada seeking opportunity, the unfortunate reality was that for most the reward never outweighed the risk. The land itself was left with irreparable scars, tangible reminders of what had happened (and continues to occur in other reaches of the Amazon). Sebastião Salgado’s image of a typical scene at Serra Pelada highlights this through the sheer scale that makes these miners almost appear to be the size of ants when compared to the void itself, urging viewers to understand the immense devastation caused by the mines.