The first installment of the “Blood From a Stone” series examines artisanal mining, and its artistic representation, through the lens of photojournalism and historic documentation.

Modern mining can be said to have begun as early as 1712, with the invention of the Newcomen engine to dewater the deeper shafts being dug in Britain at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; alternatively, the modernization of mining can be dated as late as 1867, when the Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, which soon replaced the black gunpowder that was then in general use. The problem with choosing between these important dates is not that to do so is arbitrary, but that it inscribes mining as a whole into a compelling yet deeply flawed theory of modernization – the idea that the emergence of new modes of production “shatters” established relations of production and renders them utterly obsolete. This idea is the foundation of the theory of dialectical materialism, explicitly formulated in the nineteenth century to explain relations between modes of production and economic orders in light of the socially disruptive effects of technological change. Dialectical materialism was a theory centred on technological innovation, which means that it inescapably privileges the notion of progress and the optimization of production, ideas that are now generally discredited as positivist fantasies.

Click the arrows below to view the Artisanal Mining photobook

The problem of defining modernity is particularly relevant to a discussion of mining, since mining, regardless of the degree of its technological sophistication, retains strong traces of its pre-modern nature. Indeed, there are few activities more elemental than digging, and no impulse more human than to extract gold from its dregs. Any comprehensive account of contemporary mining must thus begin by recognizing that the development and practice of mining is profoundly uneven, i.e., that practices deemed “archaic” or “obsolete” persist alongside technologically “advanced” ones. In fact, different modes of mining combine in varied and often unique ways, and this generates territorial friction and even causes outright conflict. This series of articles is concerned primarily with artisanal mining, that is to say, those mining practices that can be alternatively described as subsistence, small-scale, placer, traditional, seasonal, labour-intensive, informal, or illegal. Each of these qualifiers indicates a different interpretive framework for understanding mining that occurs outside of, or alongside, modern industrial mining, and thus suggests the range of issues that will be considered herein, from economic justice through neo-colonial exploitation and territorial disputes to scavenger economies. It is important to note that artisanal mining is by no means a minor or marginal form of mining; artisanal mining annually produces about 20 per cent of all gold, and as much as 80 per cent of all gemstones. Much post-consumer metal recycling can be described as a form of artisanal mining, and artisanal mining is an increasingly important supplier of rare earth elements, which puts this “archaic” mode of production at the forefront of new demands and emerging markets.

While the articles in this series will generally use the term “artisanal mining” and the related acronym ASM (which stands for Artisanal and Small-scale Mining, the term preferred by the United Nations and many NGOs), it is important to note its limits. In current common use, the term “artisanal” refers to the revival of craft methods of production, usually by young entrepreneurs in advanced industrial nations. Politically, the term serves as a signifier of resistance to industrialization, the division of labour and the progress of capitalism (though its users are generally averse to such overtly political descriptions), but among consumers it is widely regarded as a synonym for traditional, or even as a standard of quality. In short, “artisanal” commonly denotes an elective anti-modernism; as a result, the term is readily co-opted as a signifier of social distinction or, worse yet, deployed as a marketing strategy. Needless to say, artisanal miners work in a context of limited options, and often at great risk and cost; i.e., precisely not out of nostalgia for antiquated productive techniques, and certainly not to attach some (reputedly progressive) ideological conviction to commodities in order to reassure consumers and dignify their acts of consumption. Despite the shortcomings of “artisanal” as a theoretical term to describe mining, it remains the most convenient way to distinguish between different modes of mining.

It should be further stipulated that this project is a study of the representation of artisanal mining, especially its artistic representation. By and large, this representation takes place in the medium of photography and in the form of photojournalism. The photographs that introduce this analysis of artisanal mining are readily available iterations of an image that regularly appears in recent photojournalistic essays on artisanal mining: the hand or hands of a miner holding particles of gold, a gemstone, or a lump of some other valuable mineral. These “hands holding nuggets” images are normally lodged in sequences of photographs and accompanied by captions, sometimes even by comprehensive texts. The re-contextualization of these images here as a collection is intended to isolate and focus attention on the image in aid of identifying the history, assumptions and drives of this photographic work.

Ganging the photographs together provokes a closer reading of the images and reveals differences among them. Comparing the pictures makes it obvious that, while all the photographs are staged (arguably, this is inherent in the act of photography), some are evidently staged with more artifice than others, and this usually accords with the degree to which the raw material has been refined. While most of the pictures show the hands of miners, some depict merchants or dealers and others feature models hired by auction houses. In a few photographs, the treasure on display has already been consumed and discarded, and it is being re-discovered as if it had sprung from the ground fully-formed. In some pictures, the substance on display is not the gold being sought, but the hazardous mercury used to find it. One image is not of something found, but of someone lost.

It is my sincere hope that ganging the photographs together does not diminish them, but rather provokes a closer reading of the images and reveals differences among them…

The historical origin of this kind of image is quite unclear. It could be argued that a hand holding minerals is a natural image, in the sense that hands provide scale for the mineral samples, and the picture documents and thus somehow reproduces the excitement of discovery. Of course, this sort of display can only be made with a mineral valuable enough that a quantity held in hand constitutes a fortune, however modest. One of the earliest and most compelling examples of the image is a photograph made in the Yukon around 1899 by Eric A. Hegg, who was the most prolific photographer of the Klondike gold rush. It shows a colossal gold nugget held between two hands in a pose that suggests awe and reverence, even prayer. The photographer’s point of view is over the miner’s shoulder; it is as if the camera had witnessed the very moment of the nugget’s discovery. There is a roughly contemporaneous image of the discoverer of the Cullinan diamond at Pretoria, South Africa, dated 26 January 1905, but its interest is almost exclusively documentary; given the full-length figure, it might be regarded as a commemorative portrait. Further archival work might reveal other early examples from colonial-era mining in sub-Saharan Africa, but the earliest image that is identifiably related to the many recent photographs of hands holding minerals was made in Sierra Leone in 1962, and belongs to the Otto Bettmann archive. Another early iteration is a photograph by Bernard Hoffman published by Life magazine in 1949. It shows the celebrity jeweller Harry Winston with an open palm bearing an astonishing collection of some of the world’s most precious gemstones, including the famous Hope diamond.

Gold nugget held by unidentified man, probably Yukon Territory, ca. 1899. History and Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

The similarities of the Hegg and Hoffman photographs reveal the capacity of a single image to span the “raw” and “refined” poles of the production process. It might well be the case that these pictures cannot be inscribed in a history of art, but instead share something of a common geography. With a few exceptions, they originate in the Global South, which is a cultural terrain as much as a physical space.1 It is in the Global South that the industrial mining pursued by transnational corporations most directly collides and combines with artisanal modes of production. This conjuncture attracts the attention of both traditional photojournalists and a new generation of activist/journalists that are empowered by digital technologies and eager to expose injustice and the social conflicts inherent to corporate neo-colonialism. Even if these two groups of photographers agree in producing this image, it is historically and semantically burdened by the memory of a visually similar image from the recent past: the outstretched, begging hands and upturned, imploring faces of the global poor, primarily used to solicit donations in famine relief campaigns from the 1960s through to the end of the twentieth century. This sort of picture was often produced by United Nations agencies and global charities; it was largely produced by politically committed liberal photojournalists, and it was addressed to viewers who were presumed to be Western, white, and capable of direct giving. These images were part of a propaganda campaign to communicate the condition of mass poverty to affluent classes and thus secure their sympathy for large-scale ameliorative efforts. These new images of miners are also generally meant to elicit sympathy or concern, but they do so without depicting abject suffering. The miner’s hand at once grasps and claims the earth’s goods and offers them to others, signifying some form of participation – the exact character and condition of which is not always immediately discernible – in a common, world market. These are the hands of workers, and they are not empty.

In Kailo they mine wolframite and casserite (see Flickr for more info).
Photo by Julien Harneis, via Flickr (CC license).

That said, this image is not adequately explained as a species of labour photography. Delicately balanced between pride and humility, the act of disclosure sometimes has an air of aletheia, as if an ultimate truth was being revealed. In iconological terms, the image can be thought of as an ostentatio, which is the ceremonial display of an object of some especial significance, like a reliquary. In the final analysis, the image might be best understood as symbolic, or even allegorical. In a brilliant analysis of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous bergfilm, The Blue Light (1932), Nicola Masciandaro says, “As the shot of Junta’s hands at the moment of her fall indicates, she represents that ‘impossible’ creature who can corporeally unify or simultaneously hold onto without collapse the ungraspable infinite objectivity of the thing itself (mountain) and its graspable finite subjective condensation (crystal).”2 This dialectic underlies the proliferation of this image in contemporary mining photography. The outstretched hand or hands of a miner display some mineral good, such as a crystal, gem, or nugget that has been recovered from the earth; in the background is an open pit or otherwise ravaged landscape that stands as the immutable ground, source of the goods, and origin of all meaning. The two are linked by a gesture that is fundamentally ambiguous—the hand at once appears to both offer and grasp; to show and to lay claim; to invite admiration and to cautiously disclose. Artisanal mining is ultimately manual mining, the work of that most obsolete, most persistent of all technologies, the artisan’s hand.

1 In North America, tourism is the most common source of similar images, made when people re-enact gold rushes of the past. I have excluded these images as essentially inauthentic.

2 See https://www.academia.edu/24370487/Interview_on_Bergmetal_with_Tristan_Vivian_Adams_. Accessed [1/23/2021].

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Kenneth Hayes is an architectural historian and critic of contemporary art who lives and works in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. His book-length essay on milk splash images in photo-conceptual art from 1965 to 1985, titled Milk and Melancholy, was published by Prefix and MIT Presses in 2008.

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