Made in Chile
The first 17 days in August after the miners disappeared underground are spent in silent vigilance, almost in secrecy. We think this will be just another of so many mine disasters that happen around the world, with some anxious waiting followed by a great deal of mourning. The respect for the pain of the 33 families is felt all across that stretch of desert – dubbed Camp Hope. The pain of that vigilance gives way to an outburst of rage against the mine’s owners, who never appear nor give any credible explanation for the disaster. Rumors of a rescue plan without details cause more confusion as it all seems improvised. When the collapsed mine tunnel is determined to be impossible to reopen, the rescuers pull back as it seems there is no one alive to rescue. The families sink into uncertainty.
“All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.” My family lunch ends abruptly as we see the slip of torn paper on live television. The miners are alive 17 days after their tunnel collapsed 700 meters underground. Six hours later I’m in Camp Hope far from our lunch table photographing the families celebrating. The families learn to laugh again.
A day photographing at Camp Hope soon becomes a routine so natural I feel like part of the neighborhood. I park my car, grab my cameras, and greet the families who are also part of the landscape. I greet Maria and Elizabeth, sisters of trapped miner Dario Segovia, who are conversing and joking with everyone around. Photographers gather in front of their awning to cover reactions to whatever is the news of the day. Together with them is Cristina Nuñez, fiancee of miner Claudio Yañez, who proposed marriage to her through a message sent from the depths of the mine. She accepted immediately. They’ve already been together for a lifetime. Cristina is boisterous and likes to be noticed.
Across the way is Lilianett, wife of Mario Gomez, the oldest of the trapped miners. Lilianett framed the first letter Mario sent her from below as if it were a museum piece.
Susana Valenzuela moves loosely along the Boulevard of Camp Hope carrying a statue of the Virgin of Lourdes. In the heat she is friendly and laughs easily. She fields all types of questions but her answers are always confusing. She spends a lot of time adorning and preening the altar to miner Johnny Barrios, and we help her finish the decoration. The following afternoon I see another, smaller woman taking down the altar. Piece by piece the red adornments give way to gray rock and in a matter of minutes she leaves Johnny’s altar bare. It strikes us all as curious, even more so the next day when Susana returns to rebuild the altar… and sticks by it to protect the sacred place. We watch as two policemen approach and she begins to agitate her arms. I watch from a distance and can’t hear their discussion until she yells, “I don’t want anything. I only love him.” Suddenly it’s obvious why her answers were never clear. Susana is Johnny’s lover and the smaller woman who tore down the altar is his wife. The policemen were trying to dislodge Susana. After a few days, the miner with a wife and lover becomes top world news.
Camp Hope becomes a small city plagued by news media and illuminated like one big TV studio. There’s a casino, a square, a main street, and the Boulevard where journalists stroll incessantly like important gears in the rescue machine. The miners’ families are harassed by the press, and in the final days before the rescue it’s impossible to find any of them without a camera or audio recorder stuck to their faces. One journalist admits, “This is a circus.” Nobody respects the privacy that existed before the media invasion.
Land becomes scarce as awnings, tents, motor homes, campers, televisión studios and platforms are squeezed into the last open ground. Lucky to have been among the first to arrive and set up shop, we’re forced to defend our ground later on as miners’ relatives try to evict us. Away on a break, I tell Luis to defend our space and not allow anyone to transit through our tent on the Boulevard. He photographs a couple of mounted police nearby, and we laugh the next day when his photo is among the selection of the day’s best images.
I never doubted the possibility of a successful rescue. From the moment they showed signs of life and the three rescue plans were in progress, the discussion was about which would succeed first and when. We never thought about failure. We had already given them up for dead once. Now I feel a deep respect for those who never believed them lost, even though their beliefs were based on emotions and not facts.
On a radio in Camp Hope we hear Chilean group Los Bunkers play their rock version of a Silvio Rodriguez song titled “Sueño con Serpientes” (I Dream of Serpents). The distorted guitars vibrate over the ridge with its lyrics about life’s constant struggle with death; a cyclical tragedy that never ends even after killing a few serpents. For the first time I’m attracted to Silvio’s music, albeit in this rock version that is played repeatedly. I even put it on my ipod and listen to it with colleagues. A colleague at the hotel in nearby Bahia Inglesa shares my liking for the song and we talk about the presence of tragedy in our lives after the recent earthquake. With tragedy in mind we carry on our assignment in Camp Hope until one day he takes a wrong step, hits his head and collapses two days later with a brain hemorrhage. He’s recovering now but never got to see the final rescue. During the weeks of coverage five colleagues suffer car crashes in the desert and I begin to fear for myself. As in the song the life-death struggle becomes reality. A dream of serpents.
The live televised rescue begins at night as if it were a movie with a massive stage, artificial lighting and the capsule as main prop, with the rescuers in the starring roles. We observe the production on a ridge 300 meters away, but with an 800mm telephoto lens I feel like a privileged viewer. As we commence the beginning of the end to the long saga, all eyes and cameras are trained on the first miner to emerge. We can feel the emotion with the National Anthem, with screams and hugs all around. Many yell, “Long live Chile, Damn it!” The first miner emerges impeccable, shaven, clean and healthy, far from the image I had expected. He looks ready for a trip to the mall. The rescue advances without a flaw. Minutes later President Pinera gives a short but unnecessary speech with the rescue happening in the background to say, “Florencio Cevallos is with us.” There was no miner with that name, but it’s obvious he’s referring to Florencio Ávalos.
I manage to be present for the rescue of the first miner through the last. After waiting weeks for that moment I just have to see it all. As the sun rises our expectation wanes and fatigue sets in, making it harder to look through the long lens. To revive myself I take a walk around the ridge to photograph colleagues dozing while the rescue continues without pause. Journalists, photographers and cameramen lie sleeping amongst the antennas, computers, generators and portable TV studios. I’ve never seen so many people sleeping so uncomfortably. As the day warms up all come back to life and with daylight I can focus better. The world is glued to television screens as if watching Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon. We were watching another giant step, except that this production was Made in Chile.
Alfonso Ávalos, the father of two trapped miners, watches with his family the rescue of his son Florencio as the first miner to emerge. The awning which had provided shelter to them for two months is torn apart by the stampede of anxious journalists. Alfonso hugs his family and the cameras battle for the best shot of their emotions. The next day a photo of Alfonso smiling while holding the hands of two young relatives fills me with joy. Alfonso is a big, strong man of the countryside who never smiles. His hometown Salamanca, three hours north of Santiago, is known as the land of the sorcerers. He spent nearly all 69 days at Camp Hope waiting for his two sons Florencio and Renan to be rescued. I never could understand his sense of humor. Every time I sat to talk with him I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Not one of those long afternoon chats (which became part of our routine) did I see an expression on his face, until that day I see him smiling in a photograph after his sons were rescued.
On rescue day, when only one relative is allowed to be present at the capsule door to receive each miner, Johnny Barrios chooses his lover Susana as his preferred. His wife is nowhere to be seen. Susana is suddenly promoted from lover to girlfriend. Johnny’s first stop after the hospital is not the home he left for work that fateful day, but rather his new one with Susana. Susana carefully positions photographers in the entrance to cover the welcome kiss, the perfect image to close the story.