17 May 2018

The Artisanal Miners Hunting for Gold in Colombia

17 May 2018 - Written by Laurence Cornet

As a brother and sister team, Stephen and Elizabeth Ferry have produced La Batea: Impressions of Gold in Colombia, a photobook exploring the double effects of gold mining - situations of violence, land contamination, and exploitation, but also devotion, craftsmanship, and anchored communities.

© Stephen Ferry, from the book La Batea

Photographer Stephen Ferry’s latest book, La Batea features his personal photographs along with thoroughly researched texts written by his sister, Elizabeth, and Ferry himself. An investigation of gold mining in Colombia, it refuses the shortcut of its disastrous environmental impact and focuses, rather, on its political and social contexts. An all-time object of worship, gold has most recently become a symbol of capitalistic voracity. A traditional source of income for local communities living on subsistence farming and manual work, it turned into a billion dollar industry for multinational companies.

The transformation has been largely supported by the Colombian government, who granted unlimited licenses to international consortiums to exploit the subsoil and expulse local miners, even if that means spilling blood. On the occasion of a strike that erupted in the gold mining cities of Segovia and Remedios, after the National Mining Agency passed a decree threatening prison for anyone processing gold without a certificate from a legally titled mine, Elizabeth Ferry wrote, "for many miners [there], this was just the most recent of many governmental actions that favoured the multinational Gran Colombia Gold corporation over their interest."

© Stephen Ferry, from the book La Batea

Similar scenarios appear throughout the book, unraveling the complexity of the situation which, it appears, often lies in the wording. Elizabeth and Stephen Ferry’s research and precision is exemplary in that regard. "Artisanal" doesn’t refer to the scale of the exploitation but to the method - it’s a process that doesn’t imply the use of mercury to dissociate gold fragments from a mix of dirt, nor large scale machinery such as backhoe. "Illegal mining" is yet more ambiguous. While it’s questionably less damaging to the environment, the world serves as a political tool to deprive "ancestral" miners from their land of exploitation.

Gold mining is an art that has been revered since pre-Colombian times, the precision of which is still transmitted today. Using the batea, "a shallow, concave wooden pan […], it takes several hours to get the gold from even a small quantity of pay dirt, with a constant adding of water, laundry detergent, and a steady shaking and swirling to coax the gold dust out of the surrounding muck so it will fall to the bottom of the pan", Ferry writes.

© Stephen Ferry, from the book La Batea

Gold has also, for a long time, served as a social catalyst. In recent years, it helped some communities to stand strong against various armed groups at the peak of the civil conflict, and for centuries it supported women deprived of money by creating a custom called "chatarrera", "by which miners leave some material by the side of the mine, so that others, usually women, can pick through and break it to recover the gold within."

The photographs alternate between colour and black and white, and between abstraction and documentary depending on the many qualities of gold they are aimed at emphasising - its history dating back centuries, its rare shine, its mythological attribute, or its contemporary social reality. So does the materiality of the book, whose wooden cover is adorned with a swirl ending in a pinch of real 22 karat gold leaf. All together, they are reminders of the artistry of gold mining and help destigmatise it – a stigmatisation often due to a misunderstanding of the situation.


La Batea by Stephen Ferry

Photographs by Stephen Ferry // Texts by Stephen and Elizabeth Ferry

Published by Red Hook Editions // Lay-flat, section-sewn // 14 x 24 x 4 cm // Edition of 1000 // $40



Stephen Ferry is a non-fiction photographer based in Bogota, Colombia covering social and political change, human rights issues, and the environment. He has contributed to The New York Times, GEO, TIME, National Geographic and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram.

Elizabeth Ferry is a professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, with interests in value, materiality, mining, and finance, and with fieldwork emphases in Mexico, Colombia, and the United States.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes