The Mines of Serra Pelada

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Sebastião Salgado is possibly the most famous and eminent photojournalist working today. He embarks on great photographic projects, seeking out places that are untouched by modern humanity and exposing the inhumanities it left behind. If there is one Salgado picture that will stand the test of time, it is this picture of a dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police taken in Brazil in 1986. It is the classic picture of tension with a twist–the authority is in the hands of the police on the right, but he earns much less than the miners thus infusing that facet of tension into the picture too.

The tale of Serra Pelada was straight out of the great 19th century gold rushes of Australia and the American west. A 6g nugget of gold, found by a local bathing his child on the banks of a remote river, started an uncontrolled gold rush that turned the place into a modern day Inferno. In five years, tens of thousands of men swarmed the site in a huge goldstrike worth more than the annual output of all Australian gold mines combined. Salgado not only documented a lengthy photoessay about Serra Pelada but also the nearby town of “stores and whores”,  where tens of thousands of girls under the age of 16 sold their bodies for a few grains of gold. It is also said there are 60-80 unsolved murders in the town every month.

34 thoughts on “The Mines of Serra Pelada

  1. The government needs to do something about this. This is destroying the environment. I know these people are just trying to make a living, and now the economy is in a shithole. This problem still has to be dealt with.

  2. Dear Sirs,

    Prof. Artioli from the University of Padua is interested in reusing two of your pictures in a textbook. For more detailed information, please contact me at the following e-mail address:

    barbara.vianello at unipd.it

    Thank you.

  3. In the 1970s I saw a documentary on this. Left a searing impression on my mind, especially that no work I would ever do could be as hard as the dirt haulers.

    If anyone can help me identify that documentary, it would be greatly appreciated. I’ve got some young grandchildren who will need to see it in a few years.

      • braulio, thanks, yes, I knew it’s in Powaqqatsi, but it’s not the old documentary I was looking for. The documentary has much more gritty detail than Powaqqatsi. It was similar to THE CHARCOAL PEOPLE, but making a much stronger impression on me.

        Anyone? That 1970s documentary? Would you know the title?

    • There was an Australian TV doc for Sixty Minutes, with George Negus, called Teasure of Serra Pelada and a WNET doc called Gold Lust narrated by Orson Welles. I don’t know of anything from the 70’s. Gold wasn’t discovered there until 1979.

      • There are also two Brazilian docs: Montahas de Ouro and Serra Pelada Ouro. Both can be found on Youtube.

      • Pete, I’ve just checked Wikipedia, and you’re right about 1979.

        In my memory, I watched the documentary in a living room in Fort Huachuca. I was stationed there from ’71 to ’73.

        Obviously not possible that I watched it there.

        But reading the Wikipedia description, there’s no doubt I did watch a documentary. I’ll go to Youtube to see if those two Brazilian documentaries are what I watched.

        Many thanks.

  4. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

  5. […] collections, each with a different focus on the world. The first  image they show is of a gold mine in Brazil with thousands of workers climbing in and out of the pit on rickety ladders, I don’t know if […]

  6. […] The tale of Serra Pelada was straight out of the great 19th century gold rushes of Australia and the American west. A 6g nugget of gold, found by a local bathing his child on the banks of a remote river, started an uncontrolled gold rush that turned the place into a modern day Inferno. In five years, tens of thousands of men swarmed the site in a huge goldstrike worth more than the annual output of all Australian gold mines combined. Salgado not only documented a lengthy photoessay about Serra Pelada but also the nearby town of “stores and whores”,  where tens of thousands of girls under the age of 16 sold their bodies for a few grains of gold. It is also said there are 60-80 unsolved murders in the town every month. (https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/the-mines-of-serra-pelada/) […]

  7. […] cinematographer: Matthew J. Lloyd | director: Paul Hunter Technically impressive but cheesy at all get out, Pharrell’s “Freedom” features a wide array of in-your-face visuals juxtaposed with Mr. “Happy” singing in a variety of places where people aren’t free at all, like the floor of a sweatshop. Most striking, though, are the images of black men breaking rocks, which were inspired by the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. […]

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