We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Although it was not chosen as a finalist by the jury, the editors of LensCulture were impressed and decided to publish this feature article about it. Enjoy!
The 300 km long Kohistan-e-Namak mountain range in northern Pakistan is home to one of the largest deposits of rock salt in the world. Six large mines, and countless smaller ones, cut away at the mountains’ interior. At the core, pink rock salt lies in wait.
Unique to Pakistan, millions of tons of pink rock salt are mined here annually. Some of it carved up and exported to the West as an expensive and sought after culinary treat.
Urban legends say that in 320 B.C., Alexander the Great formed a large encampment in the area after discovering the salt. The discovery came thanks to his horses, who inexplicably began to lick the rocks. Thus, the practice of salt mining has an ancient tradition which still continues today.
In 1872, the British took over the mining rights in the region and the first British Chief Mining Engineer, Dr. H. Warth, made the Khewra salt mine his home. He began to introduce new mining techniques used in Britain. The British continued to control the mines until the Partition in 1947, when they were finally returned to Pakistani control.
Dr. Warth left another legacy. In his time, he introduced a system that registered the local miners from the surrounding villages and gave them exclusive rights to work the mines. This guaranteeed a well-trained and reliable workforce. These groups of miners formed Pakistan’s first trade union in 1929.
Today the mines are controlled by the Pakistan Mining Development Corporation, but the same mining families, having received their hereditary rights from their forefathers, continue to work inside the salt mines themsleves.
While other salt mines across the world have become more mechanized, many of Pakistan’s salt mines still use the same techniques as those employed in 1872. Work is largely done by dynamite and then by hand. Some mines use donkeys to carry out the salt. It is the strength of the unions and the hereditary registration rights that stops the mechanization of the mines for fear that miners will lose their jobs.
For four years, I worked with Spanish photographer Mikel Landa to document 26 (13 each) of the world’s most remote, unique, and traditional salt mines—from Ethiopia to China, Bolivia to Denmark, Azerbaijan to Senegal. The work seen above is just one part of our ambitious, global project.