LUCAS CASTEL – MATHILDE MAHOUDEAU
Deuxième saison (Second season) is a documentary project by Lucas Castel & Mathilde Mahoudeau dealing with the issue raised by the possible re-opening of a tungsten mine in the village of Salau, in French Pyrenees.
The first season began in 1971 when the site in the Pyrenean mountains was exploited for the first time. Quickly, plenty of miners from the north of France, Spain and Maghreb were looking for a job in this new mine offering an attractive material comfort. At that time, the village of Salau and its surroundings knew an important economic boom: low-rent housing and high-standing chalets were built to host miners and managers, the school opened again, the shops and restaurants were busy. In 1983, rumour is heard that the site could close in the next future: China produces the same ore at a very competitive cost. The same year, workers unions started to be worried about the symptoms contracted by their colleagues due to the possible presence of asbestos in the rock.
Fifteen years after its opening, in 1986, the mine closed, leaving behind an economically and ecologically damaged region. More than 12,000 tonnes of this extremely resistant heavy metal, used mainly for aeronautics and armaments, are thought to have been extracted.
In 2015, following a willingness of the French government to produce again ores made in France, a new exploitation project is born. Since then, the population is divided between those who wish to reopen the mine for economic reasons and those who do not for mainly ecological and public health reasons.
Lucas Castel, Deuxième saison. Courtesy l’artista
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN LUCAS CASTEL AND THE CURATORS:
Lucas, first of all I would like to ask you how you entered into dialogue with the local community and how your proposal to do a photography project on such a sensitive issue was received.
First time I heard about the mining issue in the Couseran valley and more precisely in the village of Salau, it was in Paris in the law firm in charge of the defense of the village and associations who are fighting against the mine reopening.
After some research online, Mathilde Mahoudeau and I went on site first for a one-week stay there and at this point we only had the contact of the deputy mayor that we called before our arrival.
The first meeting led to a second one and so on. We quickly met a few members of the association StopMineSalau and other mayors from villages close to Salau. When meeting we were recording their point of view about the situation, their link with the territory and memories of the valley in the 80’s, when the mine was still in operation.
Our approach was mainly well received because the interviews took place in a private setting and we always tried to put a distance between our documentary approach and our personal opinions. We did not allow ourselves to have a clear-cut point of view on the problem which is very complex, we had any certainty. Also, we kept in mind that the Salau mine concerned firstly the people living in the valley and will concern the children of those we met. Their stories and convictions had to be the basis of our documentary project; the interviews have been gathered in an audio podcast. Our approach attempted to be as fair as possible, so it hasn’t been contested. As well it has been a slow process, it took time and people got that we were not there to cause a stir about the situation.
However, the stigma of the division between people about this topic is obvious while talking to them, and few of them just didn’t want to share with us about the mine, because they were bored with the problems it raised or didn’t want to take part of the debate anymore, sometimes keeping in mind acts of vandalism that have occurred in past on the old mine infrastructure or even on the personal property of some supporters or defenders of the mine re-opening project.
Your project would also seem to be a work on memory, or rather: on the landscape as memory and trace. Both because the landscape testifies to the exploitation of the territory with evident traces of toxic minerals in the ground, and because the landscape itself becomes the narrator of a tension between two eras, two seasons: one with the mine in operation, one, later, with the mine closed. What is your relationship with the landscape and do you think there could be a “third” season for Salau and the many places that resemble it?
When we first came to the village of Salau, although it is really tiny, we were surprised to see how much its landscapes carried marks of the past, and how obviously visible was its history. As you enter the village, there is first of all a Romanesque church of the XIIth century, at the time where people started to occupy the valley. Along the only road, typical old mountain houses and behind, few big blocks of flats built in the 70’s to host the mine workers and that seem mainly uninhabited today. Continuing this dead-end road going up in the mountains, this is finishing on a plateau, the old mine site from which we can’t see much because it is an underground one, into the mountain rock. So the only thing visible from the mine is this old gate and its outside area, also called the mine floor, where the ground is kind of reddish and where nothing is growing up on and forming a slag heap sinking down the slope to the brook down the hill.
Anyway, we’ve been impressed by the complexity and the wealth of this landscape, and as photographers we found it very visually interesting. So it was imperative for us to observe what this landscape had to tell, to try to interpret it in a sensitive and personal way as well as informed and curious, by documenting ourselves as much as possible and by meeting the people living in this valley and listening to what they had to tell us.
In the case of the Salau mine, there will probably not be a third season, at least for the time being and in the current situation, and therefore the mountain that hosts it and the surrounding valley will continue to evolve without having to take into consideration the upheavals linked to this mining activity.
In this project, in addition to the theme of saw depopulation of a mountainous area caused by global economic processes, there is the theme of collective health and public safety. Deuxième saison focuses predominantly on places rather than people, and looking at the photographs is like listening to the silence of those places. My question is: why this choice?
In this documentary approach we have been looking for a while for people who worked in the mine and were exposed to asbestos fibers. It turns out that most of the workers were not from the region – most of them were coming from other mining areas in Maghreb, Spain or north of France – and had moved away once the mine closed. In fact, when it closed, the village was emptied of its residents, dropping from 350 to 10 between 1986 and 1987.
Therefore we only met a few people who had been employed by the mining company at the time, such as the mayor of the village who worked on the upper surface in the infrastructure on the mine floor. Also the nurse who worked in the dispensary set up in the village and closely followed the health problems of her fellow miners and knows very well the difficulties they had in having them recognized as work-related diseases. Her testimony is extremely valuable and touching.
Portraits of these important characters did not seem so relevant in the final pictures editing compared to their audio testimonies. Not that we had to choose, but it seemed fairer to us to let their voices be heard rather than their portraits and to focus through the choice of the photographs on what the surrounding landscape had to say, as a witness of different past eras as said previously, but also revealing a certain atmosphere revealing the tensions that have appeared with the possibility of a mining revival in the village.
In your project the photographic medium is not only a means of expression, but also a protest action. Why did you choose photography, what is your relationship with the medium in both uses that you make of it and what do you think is its specific utility beyond the obvious documentation?
I imagine that without the practice of the photographic medium we would not have realized a documentary project on this topic and therefore that photography in addition to being the means is also the condition for the realization of this project, and also our way to get involved into these questions. Being concerned about these issues is an act of protest protest against a system based on growth and productivism. The use of photography as we practice it, with a constraining camera and instilling a slow rhythm, comes down to putting ourselves in line with a desire to re-envision the ever-increasing production of images. With a part of unconsciousness we thus chose the fixed image and the slowness of manufacture of silver images in adequacy with an approach which makes sense for us.
Lucas Castel, Deuxième saison. Courtesy l’artista