Photographers' Blog

The lithium triangle

LITHIUM MINING

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile hold the planet’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries used to power a range of technologies from cell phones to laptops to electric cars.

Industrial production from the so-called “lithium triangle” is already high. Chile is the world’s leading source of the metal, turning out around 40 percent of global supply, and Argentina is another significant producer. Output from the Andes may soon rise after Bolivia – the country that holds an estimated 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves – opened its first lithium pilot plant in January.

Reuters photographers recently traveled to the research and production sites in those three countries, all located in high altitude salt flats at around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, and wrote about their experiences.

GALLERY: THE LITHIUM TRIANGLE

Salar de Atacama, Chile

By Ivan Alvarado

Nelson sculpts alongside the dirt road that runs by his house. In the shadows I can see different figures of volcanic rock exhibited for sale to the few tourists who pass by here. His daughter Luz and her children keep him company as his hands transform another piece of stone into a miniature of a church steeple.

“He was chosen twice as the best worker,” Luz says.

“Best worker at what?” I asked.

“At the lithium plant.”

Apart from sculpting, Nelson works at one of the two lithium plants that exist on the Atacama salt flat. Born in Santiago, he moved to Toconao more than 30 years ago. He first learned to be a craftsman, and then became a mine worker. In the back of his house is a small plot where he grows fruit and vegetables. There is also an area dotted by several small wooden huts, and a portable swimming pool to cool down in. Inside, a huge stereo takes up a large part of the wall next to a flat screen TV.

Trapped with a way out

By Mariana Bazo

It would be impossible to think of rescuing miners and not to associate such thoughts to the rescue of the Chilean miners in San Jose, Copiapo, 2010. That really was a glorious rescue after a lengthy sixty-nine day underground wait.

This time in Peru, nine miners were trapped in an illegal copper and gold mine in the desert of Ica, south of Lima.

The story began to gain momentum when it was discovered the Peruvian miners were still alive. Then with the hope came the story, curiosity, national interest and comparison.

Chile’s dog days

By Ivan Alvarado

Today it seems the dictatorship ended only recently….

A newspaper front page shows a dog participating in the demonstrations in Chile. It seems that anything can happen these troubled days around the world, so between slogans and statements it makes sense to write a blog about street dogs and demonstrations.

“Free quality education.” – Student movement
“Nothing is free in life.” – President Sebastian Pinera
“Education should not be for profit.” – Student movement
“Gang of useless subversives.” – Carlos Larrain, president of the ruling party
“We don’t need mediators, and especially not from the Catholic Church.” – Camila Vallejo, student leader.
“It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall….the education of Pinochet.” – Demonstrators.
“Education is a commodity.” – President Pinera.
“The government exaggerates the students’ claims to demonize them.” – Mario Waissbluth, expert on education.
“The only thing they [the demonstrators] want to do is destroy the country and us.” – Chile’s National Police.
“I’m a gardener and I want my son to be an engineer.” – Street graffiti.

With the camera on manual mode, shutter speed 1/1000, and my view limited by a gas mask, my 70-200mm lens changes focus with agility and it seems most often to lock on a dog running in and out of its view trying to capture a water jet aimed by riot police at hundreds of student protesters of diverse origin, all of them united under the conviction that a better education in Chile is possible.

Helping the helpless

More than just a photograph, irrefutable proof.

It was three weeks ago when a woman named Carolina called me to denounce abuses inside the Pequeño Cottolengo shelter in the city of Quintero, near Valparaiso. The shelter is part of a chain of homes for mentally handicapped children and youths run by the Catholic Church. Carolina had been working there only three months.

I met with her and saw photos that she had taken with her cell phone during the different shifts she worked there. One of the images showed very clearly the bruises caused by the beating of a young girl, a girl too handicapped to defend herself. Others showed the obvious effects of malnutrition on one young boy.

I asked her if it was possible to take more images, and she answered that she was willing to face all the consequences, including losing her job, to be able to help the children.

Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me the first time we met. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t get to know him well enough then to even learn his name.

A combination photo shows Emilio Gutierrez, who lost his father and son during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, (top) carrying his son's dog after rescuing it from the ruins of his home in Constitucion, March 10, 2010, and (bottom) holding his 2-month-old baby, Emilia, at his home in Putu town, near Constitucion February 25, 2011. Gutierrez continues to search for 4-year-old Jose who disappeared in a huge wave spawned by the tsunami last year. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Minutes after the earthquake in his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves with his family by boat upriver, away from the river’s mouth. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son, Emilito Jose, were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio trusted his father’s experience and was sure that they would be fine. Together with his mother and wife, Sofia, he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

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.

(Top-Bottom) Policemen escort the co-owner (C) of the San Jose copper and gold mine where miners are trapped in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners wait outside of the mine for news of them in Copiapo.

“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.

(Top-Bottom) A member of the media looks at a computer screen with the image of a note sent by one of the 33 miners trapped inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners react after learning that the 33 miners were found alive in Copiapo.

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.

Chile: The earthquake picture I never sent

Caption for an unchosen picture:

Constitución, March 1 – An earthquake survivor carries the dog that he rescued from the ruins of his home, along a street devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

“Take my picture with the dog,” the survivor tells me. I take it as if ordered to, and see that his face shows tremendous pain. “I lost my home, the sea took my son and my wife, and this is all that was left. I can’t leave the dog here. He was my son’s.” He pauses. “I found my wife (alive), but my boy is still missing.” Before he finishes speaking I lower my camera and cry. I walk together with him thinking what to say to lessen his suffering, but there is only silence.

ivan blog photo

I never sent this poorly-focused photo of the earthquake survivor. The preconception of what makes a good photograph, the aesthetics, the layers of composition, and the sharpness or lack of it, all became reasons not to choose it. It was some time later when I realized that the sadness of the out-of-focus man with his pet is still transmitted as pain and devastation even through the picture’s technical defects, and banishes all the photographic concepts I hold true in my own little world. I blame Reason for overcoming Emotion.

A Volcanic diary

……finally confident about returning home after two difficult weeks of coverage around the volcano……

First attempt: Santiago-Puerto Montt-Castro-Chaitén-Puerto Montt.

May 2: Puerto Montt (1016 km south of Santiago). It’s 10 p.m. at the local airport and I must reach Chaitén, a village which is in a state of alert. The Chaitén volcano, of which there are no historic records, has awoken after a 9,000- year slumber.

I drive to Pargua, cross the Chacao channel by ferry to Chiloé island, drive 81 kilometers further to Castro. In Castro I await another ferry for a 12-hour trip to Chaitén.

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