I will analyze Washington-based photographer Louie Palu’s 2012 exhibition Cage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt, held at the Sudbury Art Gallery in Ontario, Canada. Cage Call was the culmination of a thirteen-year documentary photography project that captured the changing nature of hardrock mining in northern Canada. The project came at a time as industry and organized labour was attempting to reframe the traditional understanding of mining as dangerous work in a dark environment to a more modern high-tech industry. Palu’s dramatic and incisive photographs depicted technological transformation but also the clear human toll on the people who spend their working life at the “face,” the blasting zones underground. Palu’s work engages in photography’s historic role as a tool to challenge the political and social establishment, combining class politics with social and economic criticism.
I will argue that the considerable controversy generated by the exhibition from both industry and organized labour reveals the potent social criticism posed by Palu’s photographs. The presentation will begin with a critical reading of Palu’s Cage Callphotographs as historic documents and aesthetic objects. Two themes will be drawn out in this analysis: first, the visual iconography of miners and their workspace, and secondly, images that focus on health and safety concerns. Palu’s photos form a powerful challenge to the narrative that accidents and disease are part of workplaces of the past. Despite a spate of recent deaths, high levels of industrial disease, and routine accidents in Northern Ontario mines, Palu’s photos of accident victims were dismissed by Mine Mill president Richard Paquin for showing “injuries we used to have.” I will explore the sociopolitical ramifications of Palu’s work through an analysis of media coverage, specifically the claim that the exhibit did not represent “what mining is like today.”
Palu began photographing Northern Ontario in what appeared to be the twilight period of mining in Northern Ontario. I will argue that as the industry recovered, the meaning of Palu’s photographs within the community changed. Rather than being read as memorializing a history that had passed, they became a strong political critique of contemporary industry. A close examination of Palu’s work and the public reaction to it provides a useful site to explore how visual culture is shaped by and contests economic and political interests, and the enduring power of documentary photography.
Siobhan Angus: PhD Candidate York University, Toronto, ON