Ghana: Heidi Woodman's Gold Fever

Ghana: Heidi Woodman's Gold Fever

Gold has formed the backbone of the Ghanaian economy and to a great extent, it's culture, for centuries. The West African nation, formerly known as the Gold Coast, is quite literally built on it. However the gold mining industry and the relentless pursuit of the precious metal (both legal and illegal) has taken its toll on the environment, the economy and it's people.

Melbourne-based documentary photographer and visual storyteller Heidi Woodman has traveled to Ghana many times. Traveling throughout the country, she’s had the opportunity to view some of Ghana’s gold mines, meet the people who work them, and photograph the mines in action in her photo series, Gold Fever. This incredible project awarded Woodman as one of the finalists in the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards and featured in the Photographic Museum of Humanity.

We needed to know more. We wanted to know what Heidi Woodman’s motivation was for her series and how the gold mining industry in Ghana works in modern times. So we organized a Q+A to learn more.

Long after the machines leave, the land still bares its scars. The abandoned pits not only pose a physical hazard, they also contain toxic chemicals which leach into the soil and stagnant water provides the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, increasing the risk of malaria for surrounding communities. © Heidi Woodman

Long after the machines leave, the land still bares its scars. The abandoned pits not only pose a physical hazard, they also contain toxic chemicals which leach into the soil and stagnant water provides the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, increasing the risk of malaria for surrounding communities. © Heidi Woodman

Tell us about your travels through Ghana, and particularly, why you were interested in visiting a gold mine?

I've had traveled to Ghana many times over a period of about 10 years and I always witnessed massive changes between visits. The biggest of all being just prior to and then after the global financial crisis. After this point I began to monitor the 'progress' of the country closely.  My background is finance and economics and I was fascinated by the fact that this tiny country has become the fastest growing economy in the world almost overnight and what the repercussions would be for the country, the land and of course, for its people. 

I'll borrow an excerpt from my book to explain this:

'When financial markets went into free fall in 2008, the price of gold began a four-year meteoric rise to record highs as investors flowed out of riskier assets and poured into the ‘safe haven’ of gold, a phenomenon known as ‘flight to quality’. This virtual gold rush was mirrored on the ground in Ghana as tens of thousands of Ghanaians,

spurred by the lure of quick riches turned to illegal, unlicensed small scale mining known locally as galamsey. They were joined by an influx of illegal foreign miners, mostly

Chinese, who were also hoping to strike it rich. The new arrivals brought with them cheap, imported equipment and new methods of working that were far more destructive than traditional ones, the effects of which were devastating. Across the country vast expanses of farm land and savannah vegetation have been illegally cleared,

major water sources polluted and the livelihoods of communities which rely on subsistence farming left in jeopardy'.

Once the global financial markets stabilised once more, Ghana's economic growth returned to normal levels. Leaving behind half-built houses and shopping malls, ravaged lands, poisoned water sources and a population of people wondering what just happened and whether they could come back from it.

So my drive behind this project began really as a deep dive exploration into the Gold - or specifically the price of gold. Again, I'll borrow an excerpt from my book: 

Gold’s role in the world economy as a safe haven underpins the basis of how the price of gold is determined in the paper market (i.e. financial derivatives) which is now approximately a hundred times the size of the physical market (gold bullion). With this the price has become increasingly disconnected from the enigmatic metal itself, driven more by financial speculators than by actual demand for physical gold and with little or no regard for the far-reaching effects on the countries where it is mined.

My aim was to look at those effects, which ran deep - environmental, social, cultural and economic. It really changed the fabric of the country - and these effects continue today.

When the world’s markets went into free fall in 2008, the price of gold begun a meteoric rise. Investments poured into the “safe haven” of gold. This virtual gold rush was mirrored on the ground in Ghana: tens of thousands of Ghanaians, lured by quick riches, turned to illegal, small scale mining. © Heidi Woodman

When the world’s markets went into free fall in 2008, the price of gold begun a meteoric rise. Investments poured into the “safe haven” of gold. This virtual gold rush was mirrored on the ground in Ghana: tens of thousands of Ghanaians, lured by quick riches, turned to illegal, small scale mining. © Heidi Woodman

What drives Ghanaians to work at this mine? Do they work for a company or for themselves?

The images from the project were shot at mines all over the country. From large scale multinational mines (i.e. Tarkwa and Obuasi) through small -scale (legal) mines, illegal mines of varying size through to small artisanal panners. So the motivations, and indeed the rewards, vary greatly. 

Although in many cases, with regards the illegal mining, people were driven by the promise of quick riches. Foregoing the shocking environmental repercussions in a country  where 70% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming for a living. Meaning the land is quite literally their lifeblood and it is being poisoned and ravaged by a few to the detriment of the masses. Unfortunately, when the gold rush began there was also a massive influx of foreign (illegal) miners, mostly from China, who came with big expensive machinery (that the locals themselves could not afford) and tore up the earth, raped the land and people (metaphorically speaking) and left. 

These photos were made at a galamsey in Kyebi, East Region, Ghana. Kyebi has been dubbed “the headquarters of galamsey.” Here, a young miner emerges from a pit covered in mud. His job is to carry buckets of placer deposit (which contains the gold ore) from the sifting machine out of the pit to be washed and mixed with mercury to extract the gold. © Heidi Woodman

These photos were made at a galamsey in Kyebi, East Region, Ghana. Kyebi has been dubbed “the headquarters of galamsey.” Here, a young miner emerges from a pit covered in mud. His job is to carry buckets of placer deposit (which contains the gold ore) from the sifting machine out of the pit to be washed and mixed with mercury to extract the gold. © Heidi Woodman

Is there an image you shot that stands out to you?

My image of Kojo [below]. The young galamsey worker (galamsey is the colloquial term for an illegal miner, it literally means 'gather them and sell'). The circumstances under which I shot that image were incredibly intense. I had two cameras hanging across my body, one with a zoom lens and the other a wide angle. On my back I carried a backpack with the bare essentials (extra batteries, multiple lens cloths -there was a lot of mud- water etc) yet I was still struggling to move around the terrain particularly in the oppressive heat and under the unrelenting sun. Sweat was dripping into my eyes and obscuring my vision...and I was just climbing around the terrain.

These young men were doing back breaking hard labour in the same heat. I spoke briefly in a sort of broken English with Kojo and asked his name and if I could take his photo...before he was shouted at by an overseer to get back to work. He stared down the lens with an arresting gaze and in that split second of capture there was a moment where everything went still and I felt totally connected to this young man - as the mayhem of soil, mud and water flew around him. 

“It’s hard, dangerous work and I know that I can get hurt or sick—but it pays well and there are no other jobs for someone like me.” Kojo. © Heidi Woodman

“It’s hard, dangerous work and I know that I can get hurt or sick—but it pays well and there are no other jobs for someone like me.” Kojo. © Heidi Woodman

How did you get into documentary photography?

I used to work in the financial markets and I became rather disillusioned by the many injustices I saw both around me but also the inequity of the pay gap. So I left my career and pursued work (pro bono) within the charity sector (firstly at a domestic and sexual violence charity in London) and started to get more serious about improving my photography skills (which I had had as a hobby for many years). Eventually I decided to marry two of my passions and began a masters degree in Documentary Photography and photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London. We had incredible tutors and lecturers such as the esteemed photography academic David Campany and Course Leader Max Houghton (who was founder of Foto8 and now lecturer at LCC). This is when my passion for documentary photography was truly ignited and the obsession began! 

Do you have plans for more documentary series in the near future?

I've been working on a series about Tibetan Refugees in Exile called 'Rangzen' - it explores the identity of TRiE's in the face of the death of a generation who remembers Tibet before the Chinese invaded. It explores their stories of a bygone era and traditions illustrated by landscapes of the Himalayas, portraits of monks, activists and second generation TRiE. I still have more I want to add to this work and I hope to return to Nepal soon to continue the project, it's just a matter of funding.

I'm also working on another project closer to home, again looking at identity, but this time of people from a refugee background living here in Melbourne. 

These mining operations are known locally as “galamsey.” In every direction, one can see another galamsey operation. The term literally meaning “gather them and sell.” Swarms of workers toil away under the oppressive heat and dangerous conditions. © Heidi Woodman

These mining operations are known locally as “galamsey.” In every direction, one can see another galamsey operation. The term literally meaning “gather them and sell.” Swarms of workers toil away under the oppressive heat and dangerous conditions. © Heidi Woodman

Heidi Woodman is an award-winning documentary and portrait photographer and visual storyteller. Much of her work takes an in-depth look at issues related to the marginalized and disenfranchised, particular in developing countries.

You can buy Heidi’s limited edition and signed Gold Fever book on her website, here. Follow Heidi’s upcoming projects here.

Rachel Ruiz is the Managing Editor of Slide Night.