Potosi derives its name from the Spanish interpretation of the indigenous word for explosion or thunder. The local name for the city was given when a huge thunder crash boomed over the skies. Incan locals took this as a sign not to begin mining the mountain of Cerro Rico, which they knew was rich in metals. But when the Spanish arrived they immediately got to work. Cerro Rico was such a rich source of silver from the 16th to 18th centuries that they said you could have built a bridge of the precious metal all the way to Spain, another viewpoint was that you could have built a bridge of the bodies of all the workers who died working in the mines. Conditions were terrible for miners who were taken from their local communities and forced to work in the dangerous environment. The word Mita meant forced labour, with the proceeds going back to Madrid and the Spanish crown.
As the last supplies of silver were exhausted in the mine, other metals were mined, tin and zinc. Nowadays private mining co-operatives share the resources of Cerro Rico but they are having to go deeper and deeper into the mountain to get to any proceeds, they supplement the income with tourism. Visiting the mines of Cerro Rico has become number one on most tourists checklists for Potosi.
I joined a group to visit the mines and spend a couple of hours inside seeing the working conditions for the 15,000 miners still working at Cerro Rico. It was a really fascinating experience, unlike any else I’ve ever done, and I certainly have a huge respect for the miners who spend long hours in the terrible conditions down there.
After two hours crawling through the small tunnels, sometimes on my hands and knees through tiny gaps I was exhausted. It really puts into perspective how comfortable of my own working environment usually is. As bad as things get in my regular day job is when I don’t get fed while shooting for the day, the miners usually don’t take a lunch break at all as this would mean having to go all the way out of the mine again. They chew coca leaves, which provides the energy and alertness to sustain them throughout the day. The miners leave the leaves in between their cheeks and back teeth, giving a strange, puffed up look to their faces.
Using the head torches of a couple of other members of my group I was able to shoot a few environmental portraits of miners inside Cerro Rico. It was definitely the toughest place I’ve ever tried to shoot before – dark, dusty, dirty and damp underfoot, but it great to get the chance to photograph some of the men in their place of work. We had brought the miners gifts of water, coca leaves and dynamite which we shared out among the workers we met down there.