In 2023, the San Nicolás mine was finally shut down, bringing with it the end of an era in the history of coal mining in Spain. This closure not only affected the landscape, but also the local inhabitants. Lys Arango’s emotional photographic project speaks about Spain’s last miners, and the pride of a whole community.
What is your personal connection to the coal miners? How did this series come about?
My grandparents settled in the Asturian mining basin in the 1950s, when coal was the great economic engine of the region. Although no one in my family was dedicated to mining, my father grew up in those narrow valleys surrounded by mountains, where the river ran black and the siren announced the workers’ descent into the interior of the earth. I was born in Madrid, far from those northern lands loaded with the symbolism of the workers’ struggle, but I was always interested in Asturias and the people there.
On the one hand, the coal phase-out is a commitment to the environment; on the other hand, people are losing their jobs, their livelihoods. What does this conflict mean for you as a photographer?
For me as a photographer, the coal phase-out represents a compelling and multifaceted narrative of change. On one hand, it’s heartening to witness the environment’s resurgence as nature reclaims spaces once dominated by industry. The ageing mining towers slowly rust away as flora weaves through the remnants, offering a hopeful outlook. Conversely, there’s a poignant sadness in observing the loss of livelihoods, especially among the younger generation forced to leave due to a lack of job opportunities. This despair is evident in the abandoned homes and businesses, rendering some towns nearly deserted. However, amidst this conflict, I find inspiration in the determination of those who choose to remain, fighting for their land. These stories of resilience and the initiatives being undertaken are compelling narratives that I am passionate about documenting.
What challenges did you have to overcome while photographing?
The main challenge I encountered in this project was how to narrate the decline of mining, without falling into the trap of redundancy. The closing of mines in Europe is not a novel theme; numerous countries have already experienced it, and many photographers have captured it. In Spain, too, there have been exceptional photographers who’ve documented the rise and fall of mining, including the protests and strikes. Hence, my intention was to delve into what lies beneath this closure, into the private lives of the miners and their families. I chose to follow a select group of individuals, delving deeply into their experiences. I aimed not only to showcase their final days in the mine, but also to explore their homes, their communities, and their daily lives beyond mining. My objective was to illustrate how coal is intertwined with their very identity.
It is dark in a mine, which is difficult for a photographer. How did you deal with this darkness and to what extent is it, at the same time, an artistic means for your photographs?
Due to safety regulations, I wasn’t permitted to descend into the mine with a tripod or external lighting, beyond the flash lights integrated into our helmets. Nevertheless, I managed to make the most of the limited illumination provided by the miners’ headlamps, and I’m satisfied with the outcome. Another challenge in working within the mine galleries is the presence of coal dust. Ensuring the careful handling of equipment and thorough cleaning after leaving the mine is paramount. My camera was well-suited for this work due to its low-light performance. It enabled me to capture miners during their moments of rest, conversations, and meal breaks, allowing me to tell the story effectively.
What was the significance of the light/colour as an accent?
The significance of light and colour in my photography was integral to conveying the essence of the subject matter. In the exterior shots, the cooler tones reflected the often cloudy and misty atmosphere of the Asturian basin, a region known for its frequent rain and fog. These conditions influenced the overall colour palette. On the other hand, for the interior images, I deliberately opted for warmer tones. This choice aimed to symbolize the warmth and spirit of the people and the comforting ambience of their homes. By utilizing this contrast in colours, I sought to visually represent the juxtaposition between the external environment and the intimate world within the miners’ households.
Your pictures are also a bit wistful. Everything seems to be breaking: the houses, the walls, the people. Is there something that gives hope?
Today the Spanish mining basin is looking for other colours. Black is giving way to blue and green. The river now flows clean and the lands degraded by mining are going to be recovered. The challenges of the transition are still many, especially the alarming depopulation of mining towns due to a lack of job prospects. Also, since the Ukraine war started and electricity prices went up, much of the world has turned to coal again. Spain, however, remains firm in its decision not to reactivate the coal industry, and sees itself on the right side of history.
Lys Arango is a Spanish photographer and writer. She lives where she works, but is currently based in Paris. A Graduate in International Relations, with a Master’s degree in Journalism, she develops long-term documentary stories exploring photography, text and sound. Alongside her personal practice, Lys has worked on assignments for international NGOs, the UN, and several magazines and newspapers. Her work has won major awards, including Pictures of the Year (2023) and the National Geographic Award at the Eddie Addams Workshop (2021). Her photographs have been exhibited at numerous festivals, including at the Leica Gallery, horizons zingst Environmental Photo Festival, Germany. Find out more about her photography on the website of Agence vu and her Instagram page.