Project Description

El ritmo del arte se encuentra en un lugar intermedio – Curadora: Fortunata Calabrò

Ignacio Acosta

Copper Geography

Copper Geography is a photographic investigation of the political geography of the Chilean copper mining industry and its global circulation. The work addresses an urgent need to develop artistic approaches to contest the impact of extractive industries on the ecologies in which they operate. The project begins with a photograph taken in 2003 near the settlement Caimanes,northern Chile, where four years later the El Mauro tailings dam was built.

Copper Geography evolves through a series of field survey explorations of geographically disparate landscapes historically connected by copper, making visible both the transformation of the ecologies in which it is extracted and its global circulation. It weaves together landscapes of resource and wealth in the Atacama Desert, the Lower Swansea Valley in Wales where Chilean copper was smelted in the nineteenth century, and the City of London, the world’s principal centre for mining investment. The project considers the return of copper with added value to the Atacama Desert, as copper components of mining extractive technology and of the world’s most advanced telescopes. The project develops diverse ways of representing the transformed landscapes of copper, including a straightforward, frontal and objective view using large format analogue photographic cameras, and a series of panoramic landscapes assembled by joining images together.

Copper Geography is part of Traces of Nitrate. Mining History and Photography Between Britain and Chile, developed in collaboration with photographer Xavier Ribas and Art and Design historian Louise Purbrick, based at the University of Brighton, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

University of Brighton and Arts and Humanities Research Council (logos).


Sulphuric Acid Route

These images draw upon the invisibility of the mining intervention, which haunts the Atacama Desert. They were taken inRuta 1, a motorway between Tocopilla and Iquique where the high Andes meets the cold Pacific Ocean. Through these silent landscapes, thousands of tons of sulphuric acid are transported daily to fulfil the thirsty needs of the local copper mining production process.

Coquimbo and Swansea

These photographs are the result of a series of geographical explorations between Coquimbo, Chile, and the once heavily industrialised Lower Swansea Valley, Wales. These distant territories are linked by former extraction and smelting processes that took place between 1840 and 1880. The photographs make visible the eroded traces left by the industry, revealing new forms of territorial occupation, which includes informal settlements, gentrified developments and shopping centres. Or left, alternatively, by abandonment.

Toxic Forest

Today, El Mauro is the biggest toxic tailings dam in Latin America and the third biggest in the world, holding more that 2,000 million tons of water and mining waste coming from the copper minePelambres, owned by Antofagasta Minerals plc, a Santiago-based mining giant listed on the FTSE 100 of the London Stock Exchange. While a monoculture of Australian Eucalyptus has been planted to dispose of the contaminated water from the mining operation, the inhabitants of the settlementCaimanes have lost almost 85 per cent of their water resources. The dump is located directly on the tectonic fault in an earthquake-prone zone.

Twenty Mining Billboards

Copper comes back with added value in the form of technology to the land where it originates. These series of hoardings for material goods were taken during a road trip in the mining region of Calama. The goods advertised here are not bound to this particular geography, but belong to a complex global network of commodity exchange, in which copper plays a crucial role.


These photographs were taken in the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates Paranal, a Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Atacama Desert. These premier sites for observation in the visible and infra-red light ranges are the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes in which copper is an essential component.