Tamara Merino

2015 - Ongoing

Underneath the soil and away from the chaos of modern society exist hundreds subterranean communities where people still live in cave houses around the world. Though we all inhabit the globe in different ways, we all have a strong relationship with the environment that surrounds us. Each of the communities I have documented for “Underland” - from Australia to Spain to the United States - have its own socio-cultural, environmental, economical and religious reason that leads them to live a life underground. Humans have used caves since prehistoric times as homes and today there are more than 60 million people living underground throughout the world.

Coober Pedy is a town located in the southern Australian outback that inhabits a subterranean culture, in which the majority of the population lives in underground houses called dugouts. This is an unconventional town where most of the inhabitants search for opal, a valuable gemstone worth millions. On the other side of the world in Andalucía, Spain people have been living in caves for more than 500 years. Cave building in southern Spain started when the Arabs Muslims brought the tradition with them from the troglodyte communities of northern Africa and nowadays this is the biggest cave settlement in Europe. And finally a polygamist and mormon community lives in caves inside a rock since 1975 in Utah, United States. Bob Foster, the creator of the community, saw God in a dream telling him to go to the desert and find a specific big rock to build cave houses. This rock is like Noah's Ark for them and will protect the entire community from the eventual apocalypses and will never be destroyed by any natural disasters. This community is also 100% sustainable with renewable energy, having its own solar panel system and a natural water well on top of the rock that provides to all the families in the community.

Due to excessive human impact, our world and societies have changed forever. Climate change threatens our life on Earth and we have lost our cultural identity due to fast- paced, technological societies. In this frenetic modern time, these underground villages show that other alternatives are possible. Living underground is an eco-friendly and optimistic solution for the environment as it’s completely self-sustaining and reduces the impact on the terrain through a carbon footprint of practically zero.

With the support of the PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant, I can continue my project and ultimately raise awareness about these important but under-documented cultures to new audiences internationally. The funds from the grant will be used to document the Berber community, which has been digging out cave homes in the ground for more than a thousand years in Matmata, Tunisia. This Tunisian subterranean community is a remarkable example of how well human beings can adjust to their environment in order to survive. All the communities I have documented show us how we can go back to the basics, because today we are the ones who have to inhabit the world in a different way.

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  • Gabriele Gouellain, a German immigrant, waits in the kitchen for her husband to return from mining. Coober Pedy is a town located in the southern Australian outback where the majority of the population lives in underground houses called dugouts. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2015.

  • Trucks, cars, and junk from old machinery dot Coober Pedy’s landscape, waiting to be used as spare parts. Coober Pedy’s temperature fluctuates between -2 and 50 degrees Celsius of heat and this is why they people has choosen to live underground, because it provides them with a stable temperature of 23 degrees throughout the year. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.

  • Eric, a German immigrant, has lived in the caves of Sacromonte since 1998. Today, there are many cities and towns that inhabit this subterranean communities along the southern part of Spain,
    creating a unique community of people from all over the world who prefer the peaceful solitude of the mountains to the modern and busy life of the city. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • An oil painting hangs on the wall of an underground house. Coober Pedy inhabitants have built and dug their cave houses for the last 100 years. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.

  • Piedad Mezco and Antonio Ortiz have lived all their lives in the caves of Guadix. They were both born inside a cave and raised in the hills. In the past, Antonio worked on a farm and Piedad made wood chairs. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Italian immigrant Tony Tramaglino dreams of carving a luxurious house out of this underground space. According to the Coober Pedy district council, about 60 percent of the town's residents are originally from Europe, having migrated to the area after World War II. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2016.

  • Churchgoers attend a Sunday service in an underground orthodox church built in 1993 by the Serbian community. This is an unconventional town where most of the social and personal life takes place under the desolate Simpsons Desert. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2015.

  • Joe Rossetto, an Italian immigrant, lives underground and operates a subterranean museum that holds his private collection of stones, fossils, opal, and antiques found in the desert. Coober Pedy has 1,700 inhabitants, who come from forty-five different nationalities. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2015.

  • Goran Dakovic, a miner from Yugoslavia, searches for any trace of opal on the wall. Since 1915, Coober Pedy has been exploited for the extraction of opal, a precious stone valued at millions of dollars. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2016.

  • At the beginning of 2016, an unexpected storm hit Coober Pedy, bringing in just two days about half the amount of rain the town receives in a year. Miners were forced to wait until the ground dried before returning to work. Coober Pedy, Australia, 2016.

  • The Knecht family is having dinner in their cave house. This was the first cave house built in 1975 by Bob Foster, the creator of the community. He created a safe and remote space for his community that embraced plural marriage and followed the fundamentalist Mormon religious principles. Utah, United States, 2018.

  • Members of the Senegalese community share a daily meal. Everyday a person of the community cooks a big portion of food and shares it with everyone. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Tocuato Lopez was born in the caves of Guadix and has lived there all his life. When he married for the second time, he bought a new cave with his wife and their two children. His room is located deep in the formation and does not have any windows or natural light. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Caves cover the hills of Guadix, a southern Spanish region containing around 2,000 caves, where people have been living for more than 500 years. Today it is the largest cave settlement in Europe. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Manuel Gonzales and Encarna Sanchez pose for a portrait in their living room. Their cave was Encarna’s family home, and she was born inside it. Manuel, who also grew up in the caves of Guadix, now lives with her and their dog in the cave where she was raised. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Nerea's white dress hangs in the corridor of the cave where she lives. The cave homes are mainly occupied by Spanish, gypsies and their descendants, especially those with deeper roots and family ties who returned to recover their ancestral homes. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Senegalese immigrants sit inside a cave in the upper portion of the hills. Though the Sacromonte caves are known as the home of a large gitano community, residents of the caves come from around the globe. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Children play in abandoned caves next to their own cave home. In the past, every cave was occupied, but there are now multiple empty residences in their village. Andalucía, Spain, 2018.

  • Enoch Foster and three of his sons read the Mormon Bible during Sunday Church, which takes place in one of the caves of the community. Utah, United States, 2018.

  • Drilling machines used to mine oil create mounds of dirt on the surface. Over two million shafts have been excavated for prospection and extraction of opal and is also the largest opal mining area in the world, as it has more than seventy mining fields. Coober Pedy, Australia 2015.