For the series Lithium Mining, published by Bloomberg Markets, Catherine Hyland visited the Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile SA, or SQM mine, in Chile’s Atacama desert. Famous for being the world’s driest place, it’s remote, isolated and also the world’s largest source of lithium; the mineral fuelling smartphone, laptop and electric car batteries all over the world.
Catherine’s photographs tell the story of turning the mineral salt suspended in underground reservoirs of brine, into the “oil-slick” metal you’ll recognise in your phone battery, via a system of pumps and evaporation ponds. The series also conveys the strange, crust-like surface of the earth, and the ombré ponds that make the desert look like the surface of the moon or, at least, the set of Logan’s Run.
Catherine’s interest in the area sprung from the idea of Atacama as a tamed landscape. What motivates or legitimises economic expansionism and control in rural settings; as well as how even when seeking or seeming to achieve a level of control, people and their interventions in such settings, will be dwarfed by the landscape: “In Universal Experience, there was a taming of vast Asian landscapes, but this was subverted by clues that pointed to the dominance of the landscape. The human interventions of fence posts, viewing points and guardrails were dwarfed by the vastness of the Chinese landscapes. The same thing happens in [the] pictures from the Atacama. The mine workers tending the pools are minuscule, like visitors from space, out of their depth against the broad horizons.”
But the impact of lithium mining, on the people living in the Atacama, and on the environment, is vast. The already limited water supply is being depleted without much thought of the long-term consequences, there are huge wage disparities, and differences of opinion in regard to the relatively new lithium trade and the traditional way of life for the Atacama people. On the complexity of the environment, Catherine says: “[The] land [has been] taken over by this sudden boom in a lithium trade that fuels our digitally dominated lives, but there’s an undercurrent that this boom is transient, that there are longer running narratives, both human and geological, at play. There is enough lithium in the Atacama to make batteries for 400 million electric cars, but taking the long view, that’s not very many. We will consume, the cars will come and go, the lithium will run out, the mines will close, the land will remain.”
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