In the early 1980s, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado traveled to the mines of Serra Pelada, some 430 kilometers south of the mouth of the Amazon River, where a notorious gold rush was in progress. A few years earlier, a child had found a 6-gram nugget of gold in the banks of a local river, triggering one of the biggest races for gold in modern history. Motivated by the dream of getting rich quickly, tens of thousands of miners descended into the site swarming like ants in the vast open-air pit they had carved into the landscape. Salgado took some of the most haunting pictures of the workers there, highlighting the hazardous conditions in which they worked and the sheer madness and chaos of the operation.
This is how Sebastião Salgado described the mine during an interview in 1992:
“Swept along by the winds that carry the hint of fortune, men come to the gold mine of Serra Pelada. No one is taken there by force, yet once they arrive, all become slaves of the dream of gold and the need to stay alive. Once inside, it becomes impossible to leave.
Every time a section finds gold, the men who carry uploads of mud and earth have, by law, the right to pick one of the sacks they brought out. And inside they may find fortune and freedom. So their lives are a delirious sequence of climbs down into the vast hold and climb out to the edge of the mine, bearing a sack of earth and the hope of gold.
Anyone arriving there for the first time confirms an extraordinary and tormented view of the human-animal: 50,000 men sculpted by mud and dreams. All that can be heard are murmurs and silent shouts, the scrape of shovels driven by human hands, not a hint of a machine. It is the sound of gold echoing through the soul of its pursuers.”