Portraits Underground

Steph Glaros: I’m speaking with Jason Roth, who is a multimedia journalist and photographer for Utne Reader’s May/June cover story, “The Mountain That Eats Men,” which chronicles a reporter’s journey into La Negra mine in Potosí, Bolivia.

First, I just want to say that everyone was just adamant about finding a place for this story–in no small part because of the images that went with Andrew Westoll’s wonderful writing.

Jason Rothe: That’s great.

Steph: How did you become involved in the project in the first place?

Jason: I became involved in it through Andrew who I worked with on a number of projects. Both of us had found out about Potosí by reading Eduardo Galeano’s book, Open Veins of Latin America. I did some research and we concluded this was an incredible place that we had to visit and do a story on.

Steph: The piece was originally published in the Walrus. Did you approach them first or pitch the story when it was done?

Jason: Andrew had worked with The Walrus in the past. I think they were kind of supporting us while we were down there. We weren’t on assignment for them per se, but they had already expressed interest at that point. But it was mostly on spec.

Steph: I tried to imagine myself juggling even the most basic photo equipment while trying to navigate that mine. What did you bring down there with you?

Jason: I had a couple of camera bodies: the 5D, that I usually shoot with; the Canon; and a back-up camera as well. A few lenses, some fast prime lenses, because of the low-light conditions, and a flash.

Steph: I have to imagine it was hard to move all that stuff around down there?

Jason: I had my camera around my neck because I wanted to be able to get some photos as quickly as possible when things were happening: mine cars going past, people working in little pockets inside the mountain. So it did bang against the rocks a fair bit. It was dusty, and we were also wading in rubber boots through several inches of water that’s on the bottom of the mine.

The toughest thing happened the day before when we arrived in Potosi. I was sleeping on the bus and my back cramped up. I’m fairly tall and the mines are quite low in a lot of places, probably 4 or 5 feet, so you really have to crouch and in some places actually crawl to make it through. The entrance to La Negra was particularly difficult for me because it’s low, and you have to essentially almost run, because you have to hit a window when there are no mine cars coming.

It’s like walking in a squat the whole time, so there’s a pressure on your quads, and on your legs. And you’re also at 4,500 to 4,800 meters of altitude, and there’s not a lot of oxygen inside the mines as well, so by the time you manage that kind of sprint, hunched over with the gear, with no oxygen, breathing dust, you feel pretty dizzy at the end and need to take a break.

Steph: So in most of the photos, which you shot digitally, the only light source you had was the head lamps?

Jason: Right.

Steph: And yet, the images are surprisingly in focus and full of detail. How did you manage that?

Jason: I was basically, you know, maxing out the performance of my camera and my lenses, so I was shooting at ISO 3,200 in a lot of cases, and then also down at F1.4 or F2.4 on the lenses. In that case the challenge is actually getting enough depth of field that you’re not just focused on one particular point.

In some cases, you know, if there was enough light, I would stop down to 2.8 or 4.0 if I could to try to get some more depth of field.

Steph: Knowing that dust is a camera’s worst enemy, how did you deal with the atmosphere?

Jason: The main thing was not to change lenses in areas that it was dusty. It also depends on how much time you spend down there. I would tuck the camera under my fleece jacket or a raincoat in that case. Often what you can or can’t do depends on how much time you spend down there.

Steph: Sure. How much time total did you spend underground?

Jason: I think we spent about eight hours that first time, and then the day of compadres during Carnival, I don’t know if I actually calculated, I was probably down there another six hours again, quite possibly, and then another time for a few hours here and there. So, if you add all that up, you know, maybe 20, 25 hours altogether.

Steph: Were there things that came up that caught you totally by surprise?

Jason: There’s fear that you have to deal with, especially with regard to claustrophobia. There are a few wooden ladders that you have to use to get down to different levels and then squeeze between rocks and you don’t necessarily know what the safety standards are. So, you’re not sure what’s going to be around the next bend, or if somebody’s going to be setting off dynamite or what’s going to happen, so that was bit challenging, as well.

Also interesting, actually, was witnessing some of the emotional moments of the miners.

One day we ended up celebrating with some of the women on the day of comadres, which is dedicated to women. It’s almost like a Mother’s Day, but more for the women of the mines. We brought along serpentinas and decorations and drinks and some beer and stuff to celebrate with the women, but when we got there we found that most of the men were just kind of off working and they weren’t paying it a lot of attention. So, in a sense, we kind of got the party started. It was almost like our presence forced the men to acknowledge that they were supposed to put down their tools and go out and buy some beer and celebrate with the women.

Steph: Interesting.

Jason: Especially after a couple drinks. A lot of the women have many children and their husbands have run off and so they have to basically sort the rubble outside of the mines to try and scrape together a living. So they become kind of sad on that day, and then the men start to feel really bad that they’re not paying more respect to the women because they remember their mothers. And all of a sudden everybody’s starting to remember their mothers and everybody’s got tears in their eyes. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more of a festive atmosphere.

Steph: So if you were to do this project over, is there anything that you would do differently next time?

Jason: I don’t know if I could quite put it in those terms because this is still an ongoing project for me. I’m trying to work on a photo project which is essentially a biography of the Bolivian miner. I hope to dig into the allegory of the miner’s life and his Faustian bargain. And everything the miner represents in terms of a prototypical revolutionary figure in Bolivia, as well.

It’s something I would have liked to have done for the original story as well, but there’s only so much time and that type of thing takes a lot more time. You can’t just show up for a few weeks and get into that, necessarily, unless you’re very lucky.

Steph: So do you have plans to go back then?

Jason: Yes. I’ll definitely be going back this year, sometime before the elections in December. It could be sooner or later depending on how things go here.

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