The Flowers and the Stones
The discovery of the famous Cerro Rico by the Spanish conquistadors occupies a central place in Latin American history. Beginning in 1545, the mining of this mountain in the high plateau of Bolivia vastly enriched the Spanish crown and financed the cost of new conquests.
This mountain, also named Sumaj Orcko by the indigenous voices of the region, is located in the city of Potosí at 4,500 meters above sea level. It has been a seemingly inexhaustible source of wealth. Halfway through the seventeenth century, the riches of this mountain represented ninety-nine percent of the mineral exports from Hispanic America and met two-thirds of the world’s demand for silver. At the same time, however, it has been responsible for tragedy as eight million people have lost their lives in the mined depths of this peak over the past five hundred years.
In the Latin American imaginary, the Cerro Rico emerges as a mythical symbol of the splendor and decadence of a country and continent. Today, 16,000 miners continue working there, day in and day out, entering the hundreds of mine shafts that have been left open. Working conditions are inhumane, easily comparable to those of the conquest period. Starting young means early exposure to toxic gases from the mining process, which is a fatal workplace hazard for most miners. Longtime inhalation of these toxic gases reduces lung capacity and culminates in silicosis, an illness that is also known as “miner’s sickness” (mal de mina) and is responsible for the elevated rates of early deaths.
Behind every dead miner is a widow left alone to build a new life. While struggling to take a man’s place as the traditional head of the household, women and children are isolated, left on their own to confront the discriminating customs of society. This rigid social context makes it difficult for women to take on a role that they are not prepared for. Even as they face the pain caused by the loss of love at a young age, generally between twenty-two and thirty-five years old, they must become the wage earners of their families and the new images of authority in the eyes of their children. They are forced to try to learn a trade to make a living, to open up paths that have always been closed to them, and to allow themselves to seek the space to love again.
Sebastián Szyd was born in 1974 in Buenos Aires. In 1994, he took the first of many trips throughout Latin America. Three years later, he traveled to India for the first time, an experience that confirmed his interest in photography. Upon his return in 1996, Szyd began an extensive collaboration with the principal media agencies in Argentina. In 1999, he decided to go back to his travels in order to photograph without the restraints of his editorial work. For the next three years, he focused on the photographic essay De la tierra
[From the Land], a meditation on families and childhood in rural areas of Argentina, receiving a National Fund for the Arts Grant for this project in 2004.
Szyd had begun in 2003 to photograph the life and customs of Andean communities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. These images were published in América
(Buenos Aires: La Azotea, 2010), his first monograph. In 2009, he commenced Las flores y las piedras
[Flowers and Stones], a series that he continued to develop until the end of 2013 and for which he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2010. Szyd returned to India in December 2011, an opportunity that enabled him to photograph the works in Ofrenda
[Offering] (New York: Antenna Collections, 2013), a formal and spiritual reflection on his journeys, published by Antennae Collection in 2013. Szyd’s work has been exhibited and published in numerous individual and group contexts, and his images are part of public and private collections in Latin America, Europe, the United States, and Japan.