Six miles underground with a politician and no light

June 14, 2011

His main claim to fame to audiences overseas are his beachside antics. Beyond that, Australia’s conservative opposition leader doesn’t demand a whole lot of our work time.

However, I ended up next to him, underground, 10 kilometers (6 miles) into a coal mine.

Reuters just happened to be writing a piece about Tony Abbott and we write about mining many times every day Down Under. So here was a chance to match this piece while shooting lots of subterranean stock images.

Like all Reuters photographers now and then I am faced with shooting in very low light. This particular mine releases lots of methane gas, the stuff that caused an explosion at Pike River coal mine in New Zealand killing 29 men underground, a tragic story that I covered in November last year. The restrictions one works underground include:

– No flash
– No tripod
– No changing lenses
– No other gear except camera with lens attached
– No spare batteries
– No light sources other than the mine’s supplied head lamp
– No turning your camera on if an unsafe methane reading is detected within 20 meters of you
– No wondering off by yourself
– No leaving the main transit corridors
– And a host of others I can’t remember

photography (fəˈtɒg rə fi) n. [PHOTO- + -GRAPHY] the process of producing images of objects by recording light or of other radiant energy on a photosensitive medium.

That’s all fine; you can always work around restrictions. You always find some sort of light source, some way of making a picture of what you see; except in a 10 foot high rock tunnel. There’s no stars, no passing cars, no computer monitors; nothing. Most of these tunnels are not lit and the whole operation is largely automated. Automated systems don’t need lights to work under so my three or so hours were spent trudging around not really seeing what was around me and without a way of photographing it. If a single bulb headlamp didn’t illuminate it, there’s no picture of it.

In the end, gas levels at the coal face were deemed safe for a TV crew but “too dangerous” for me to shoot but I did get a frame or two of the country’s next potential leader. He stopped for a few seconds to press the flesh with the only working miner I saw. The miner turned to him for a second to shout above the racket of a conveyor belt.

(Picture taken with a Canon Mark IV, 135mm lens, ISO 1250, 1/100s, f2)

Near the entrance there was plenty of light illuminating the main tunnel – plenty of it to light up nothing much of interest.

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