Matt Mawson uses his powerful images to tell the story of a day’s work – but not necessarily any day’s work. He’s taken an interest in the working conditions of blue-collar workers across the world: how they work, how long they work, and how much protection they are provided from unions. After recently shooting in a gold mine in South Africa, we asked him a few questions about the experience.
CORBIS: What challenges does shooting in a mine present?
MATT: What I found the most challenging was the light or the lack of it, as I planned to do the shoot without using flash which would have obviously ruined the ambience and the feel of the conditions I was trying to capture: those experienced by the workers. And of course, it is a challenge to gain access to the interior of a gold mine many kilometers underground with the security and safety involved. As it was a personal project, I was privileged to be able to get permission to go down the mine in the first place. Walking the long tiring distance back up from the face, squeezing into ‘cut-outs’, when large vehicles passed back and forth proved to me to be an unaccustomed challenge as well. I studied geology and had previously experienced working in a mine, so I knew what to expect.
CORBIS: How do you compensate for those challenges?
MATT: As all photographers know, the great thing about recent improvements in DSLR sensor technology is their ability to capture usable images in very dim lighting conditions. I was shooting at something round about 25,600 ASA which allowed me to shoot rapidly from the hip as it were. Within this particular mine there was some strip lighting in the roof, but generally the rock face is illuminated from helmet lights and vehicle headlights so obviously exposure was critical. So you had to be quick and vigilant to capture that moment when the miners ‘light’ the faces of their colleagues with their helmet lights. The equipment also had to be able to cope with rock dust and ever present water that appeared to come from all directions.
CORBIS: What was a typical day like in the mines?
MATT: This mine operates on a 24-hour day with 8-hour shifts. There is wall-to-wall noise of drilling metal into granite, fans delivering fresh air, and the vehicles delivering the ore to the surface. There is dust and danger everywhere–the potential of falling rocks, walking into the path of heavy vehicles, or tripping over pipes, cables, and rocks. One has to really keep their wits about themselves. This, of course, for me was very disorientating having to keep one eye open for danger and the other to look for interesting moments to capture without getting flattened by something big.
CORBIS: What was the position of the miners on having you there? How about the mine owners?
MATT: The mine workers were intrigued and kind of interested at my presence and I got the feeling they were not at all perturbed at me hanging around them. They just got on with the job at hand as there was no time to stop what they were doing. At the moment my brother is chief geologist for that company, so I was somewhat welcomed down the mine by the owners, as it gave them a good opportunity to get some usable images for in-house documentation in return. I was given full access which is a rare treat for a photographer who desires to experience a working mine.
CORBIS: What are working conditions like?
MATT: In this particular mine the conditions are what you would expect working in relative darkness many kilometers under 2.5 billion year-old rocks. These guys are professionals and choose to do the work; drillers drilling many meters into granite to precise angles worked out on computer models, drivers negotiating large vehicles to within millimeters, explosives experts precisely taking out big chunks of rock and all under constant surveillance from safety officials. Naturally it’s hard work. I wasn’t there to document the exploitation of miners and their low wages following the troubles from mine workers working in the bigger fields. Although the workers here were members of the same unions that were experiencing apparent harsher conditions elsewhere, they seemed to be relaxed with their jobs and with me poking a camera in their faces. As a union member myself (The National Union of Journalists UK – NUM ), I completely stand up for the right for fair wages and conditions and the right to strike. Some mining companies treat their workers fairly and with respect and as we know others do not.