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.