For the last five years, Pierre Gonnord has been photographing Spain’s last coal miners. At seven pits in Asturias and Castilla y León, he captured an industrial tribe on the brink of extinction. “They told me, ‘Mining is the worst of the worst, we don’t want our children to do this,’” he says. “But we don’t want it to end either because then we will disappear.”
The landscape in this corner of north-west Spain is wild and beautiful: mountains and valleys where locals once scratched a living farming and now work half a mile beneath the fields. In the stone villages are proud communities with deep roots and a history of fighting for workers’ rights: an armed uprising by Asturian miners was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the Spanish civil war.
Gonnord joined workers in cramped, dark tunnels to get a sense of their seven-hour shifts sometimes 2,300ft below ground. “I went down every mineshaft in complete silence. I came up with them among jokes and laughter.” He talked to union leaders, wives and children. “Solidarity is key, and so is the sense of duty, of brotherhood, of honour,” he says. He heard family sagas stretching back centuries and songs that have been sung down these pits for generations.
But it was not the sweat and danger of working with explosives at the coalface that Gonnord wanted to photograph – or village life for that matter. What he wanted was to “steal” shots of the exhausted workers straight off their shift, in the brief moment between their reaching the surface and scattering for the shower or canteen. “I wanted to show the echo of the work on their faces.”
As the miners poured out, Gonnord would be waiting in his makeshift studio. “I couldn’t keep them hanging around, so I had to be very fast.” The men were asked to wash their faces as best they could and then present themselves for the camera however they wanted. “A closeup, in silence, with just one spot of light, 10 minutes maximum.”
The resulting portraits are as intimate and evocative as oil paintings – smears of toxic dust picking out the men’s features as dramatically as greasepaint. “Portraits are about capturing the character, emotion and psychology of the person,” says Gonnord – but while his studies brim with sombre beauty, for him the project’s true significance lies in “the fight against oblivion”. These photographs are a “tribute”, he says, to the last members of a vanishing breed.
Some of the men looking out from these dark frames are third-generation miners whose fathers and grandfathers also spent their lives covered in coal dust. Others, such as Wojciech, Miroslaw and Glushenko have come from Poland and Russia in search of work. “Wages are higher than average, and they retire as early as 45. But there is a price to pay. Many risk their life, their breath.” And the future for all is uncertain.
Three years ago, the government announced that state subsidies would be cut. Strikes and sit-ins followed with thousands of miners marching on Madrid, where they were joined by a further 10,000 anti-austerity protesters. Bloody clashes with the police followed, but the prime minister refused talks, and an industry that in 1990 gave work to 40,000 now employs fewer than 4,000.
With the subsidies drying up, all the pits look set to close by the end of 2018. “There will be nothing for these people when that happens,” says Gonnord. “It will be social genocide.” The scars on the landscape will heal but the villages may die. “The woods will grow back,” says Gonnord, “but the human silence will be worse.”
• (Other) Workers is at FOTO/INDUSTRIA, Bologna, until 1 November.
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