Blog #118: The Miner's Daughter says...

May 4, 2023
Monika Weber-Fahr
Yes, it’s me: I am a coal miner’s daughter. My dad worked in the coal mines in the German Ruhr area, and even though I have myself never been down in the shafts (women supposedly bring bad luck, or so they said at the time) I distinctly remember the black spots that had become permanent fixtures on his skin, and that could not be washed off, just like the semi-permanent dust in the air that made my mum wash our curtains once a week. This was in the late sixties, of course, before we had regulations that forced the coal fired power plants next door to install filters, but even then I grew up with the pride and sense of belonging that characterizes so many mining communities around the world, stemming from the undeniable fact that a miners’ hard work is truly indispensable - simply because our world does not function without the ores and minerals that are being dug up and extracted from the earth. And yes, the machines get bigger, the locations are more remote, but the personal risks that people take and the environmental damage that mining causes do remain - as does the fact that practically everything, from the spoon we use to eat through to the chair we sit on and the bicycle that takes us around, is built on mining.
And yes, as odd as they may seem, these were indeed my thoughts yesterday when I walked through the exhibition Mining Photography that is currently on display in the Vienna Kunst Haus in the third district (Hundertwasser Museum). If you don’t know much about photography - or much about mining - there is lots to learn here, in particular if you are young enough to not remember how film cameras used to look like, and how much the shops where we would pick up the prints would smell like really weird chemicals. At the time, we should probably have realized that taking pictures requires resources that others dig up someplace or produce in a chemical factory - but as it were, it all seemed rather far away. In the really early days of photography though - sometime between 1717 and 1800 - the inventors and early users were of course acutely aware of the use of salt, copper, and silver, to name but a few, if only because that is what they were experimenting with in order to figure out how to fix an image captured by a camera. The exhibition traces the pathways of the early inventors, looking at materials and where they came from (incidentally, did you know that for many years cotton was used for prints?) and already this material history is fascinating enough to make a visit at the Kunst Haus worthwhile.
Foto: One of the spectatular pictures on display at the Mining Photography exhibition at the Kunst Haus Wien - shedding a different light at the beauty that photography tends to convey.   
The curators also take a look at what the extraction of mineral resources involves, in particular the often dismal working conditions underground and above, the destruction of the environment, and the all too frequently ruthless treatment of people who live or make a living where someone else may want to mine.  I still wonder about that part of the exhibition, though.  Not because it’s wrong: Well beyond my personal history as a miner’s daughter I had the chance to spend part of my professional life working with mining companies around the world on the environmental, social and economic impact that their activities resulted in, and I can confirm the story that the pictures in the Kunst Haus tell us. It’s true: the process of mining mostly is ugly. Many companies have managed to improve it - but at their core, the extractive industries do destroy things. They do so to create other things. Wealth, beauty, practicality, mobility.  Whatever makes modern societies tick. Including the beauty of photography. It’s worthwhile spending some time to reflect on this - because it means that there is a responsibility innate in every item produced using these resources. The responsibility to care!
Nicely, the exhibition picks up on this theme - the theme of caring - when taking us into the 21st century part of the history of photography and its materials. Because these days, the environmental footprint of photography has more to do with what it takes to produce a smartphone than with the sliver and cobalt used in the early photographic processes. And the big story about phones is the story about waste: About five (5!) billion phones are expected to be thrown away this year, turning phones and the metals used inside them to e-waste that in many places is neither recycled nor safely deposited. The exhibition has interesting perspectives to share on e-waste management, the incentives for doing the right and the wrong thing, all things we would want to know about because they involve our responsibility to care. And just in case you were wondering: Here in Vienna, e-waste - including phones - is not only collected systematically but it is also stripped off all valuables and recycled; Austria has rules for this, and so does the EU.
Should you go and check out the exhibition? Well, it’s not your typical photography exhibition - and even though it does contain much beauty it also is very much an exercise in learning. You won’t be disappointed, though, on that end, I promise! Curious? If so, then hurry: You only have about three weeks left - it’s only open until May 29. Then the entire museum will close for six months for energy efficiency renovations.  Even more reasons to go right now - and to enjoy some of Hundertwasser’s extraordinary works while you are at it.
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